The Coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on how responsive, adaptive and effective public services can be when there is no option but to react. C.Co’s Natalie Abraham looks at how technology has supported us through this time and what this means for the future of public services.


Current and former colleagues of mine will have been privy to me getting really frustrated over ‘digital’ agendas.

Local Government for as long as I can remember has aspired to be ‘digital’, driven by a need to cut costs in times of austerity.

Phrases like ‘digital by default’ and ‘channel shift’ would be thrashed about in meeting rooms, but when push came to shove no one could ever agree or sometimes even articulate what this actually meant and more importantly how it would work for customers.

And if they could get to this point, they very quickly shied away from truly making digital access channels the default route for service delivery, it was often just too much too soon.

So for the last 6 weeks what has changed?

Well far from being perceived as an enabler for cost-cutting and reducing service delivery, digital channels have connected people who wouldn’t otherwise be connected and are now seen differently, seen positively across the board.

Who would have thought that an on-line GP consultation would become the new norm, currently ensuring that the most vulnerable still get safe access to professional advice and guidance but going forward can be a flexible and time effective way of offering consultations of convenience.

Work meetings undertaken via video chat would previously be avoided at all costs and if participated in would be firmly a ‘video off’ affair. But now, from personal experience, they are a really positive way of checking in on one another, having visual contact and being able to read body language as well as hear people is excellent. Whilst currently physical interaction isn’t possible, going forward this experience will ensure people are comfortable with this mechanism of undertaking business and save time and expense travelling unnecessarily.

The innovation we have all seen by services and retail establishments enabled through technology has been so impressive. Local and small businesses able to take orders and keep trading through lockdown, enabled through quick and easy use of social media sites. This has to be a new and better norm for local businesses which will likely change consumer spending for the foreseeable.

Whilst some people have embraced the lockdown, others still need a regular social outlet and the rapid rise of pub quizzes via YouTube, Instagram lives for tutorials and learning and even exercise classes via Zoom have all rapidly become very natural activities to participate in and have connected people to avoid isolation. Could Zoom calls or HouseParty be the new Friday night? I know I have spoken to my friend in Lisbon more this last 6 weeks than in the previous 6 months! I truly hope this continues!

This equally applies to how Local Government has maximised use of technology to drive digital enablement in response to the pandemic – from developing apps to track and plan demands for food and other essentials, to enabled tech that helps with day to day living or connecting communities. We’ve seen digital-first contact solutions to help residents access vital council services remotely (online, web-chat, phone, email) as opposed to visiting town halls – all to help maintain social distancing measures. So many council services are available online, from paying a bill, seeking information, advice and guidance to making an application – yet it still feels in its infancy.

As behaviours are changing these digital channels will continue to evolve and connect people, but this isn’t without challenge – for councils and individuals.

We’ve seen that in ‘channel shift’ towards online and self-serve, adoption (and successful application) of technology varies from one local authority to another. Reasons behind this vary from the appetite of elected members, the ability of officers, the engagement of the right technology partner or the (not so) simple challenge of serving a such a broad demographic of need. Maybe a positive to come from the pandemic is that it will become a impetus for more technology led transformation in the public sector – could the aspiration to be digital become a reality?

Overcoming this challenge, will require not only the technological infrastructure/solutions, but also require winning over the hearts and minds of residents, through engagement, co-design and co-production, to see public services in a new era – a digital era.

Personally, my family have achieved a massive win in getting my 87 year old Nanna able to answer a regular FaceTime call, living remotely she does not have access to a strong enough wifi signal so we are reliant on costly provision of 4G data packs.

Similarly, we are lucky enough to support my family members in using and utilising this technology to not only interact with loved ones, but to organise much needed maintenance support and medical advice.

Others are not so able or lucky and digital service delivery through the public sector can not be the only route of service delivery. But who is to say that services shouldn’t be designed for the majority and caringly tailored when needed for those who can not utilise.

The future is digital (by design, not default).



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