Great Expectations: Balancing the diverse needs of a city in a digital-first age
Hamilton City Council Chief Transformation Officer Murray Heke discusses the challenge of balancing the digital services citizens expect with what they are prepared to pay for.
Local government is a complex web of businesses. From providing regulatory services and keeping exotic zoo animals to managing cemeteries and swimming pools, there’s a lot happening under the Council umbrella. That’s not to mention providing the critical civic infrastructure that people rely on to live; roads and footpaths, clean drinking water, sewerage, and rubbish collection to name only a few.
With this list comes an ever-divergent range of expectations from an increasingly connected pool of customers. And satisfying these demands must be met while reducing the burden placed on ratepayers and by making prudent and efficient use of this public funding.
Murray Heke is the Chief Transformation Officer at Hamilton City Council, a municipal government organisation of about 1300 staff in New Zealand’s North Island. It’s his job to manage his customers’ growing expectations while managing a budget funded by ratepayers.
Unlike similar information technology-focused roles, Murray’s portfolio also includes Council’s customer services and transformation teams, allowing him oversight to optimise these priority services.
“Hamilton is the country’s fourth largest city, with a population hovering around 170,000 and growing,” said Murray. “It also has the youngest population of any city in New Zealand, with a median age of 32.Naturally, our customers expect a seamless digital experience. But after decades of underinvestment in technology, we’re still playing catch up.”
“Feeding the appetite for digital services must live alongside traditional channels, requiring a balanced investment”
But playing catch up can have its benefits. “It affords us the room to transform at pace, achieving greater economies of scale.”
The often- siloed nature of local government means piecemeal investment in the past has led to a disjointed customer experience. “We’re trying to fix that with strategic, organisation-wide investments in our processes, applications and infrastructure. Our customers have increasingly complex needs. Giving them (and our staff) access to good quality data enables better decision making, and ultimately, better customer outcomes.”
But investment in the digital-first approach does not hold water for everyone. “You still have to manage a range of expectations in terms of how our community engages with us. For some, coming into the building and paying their rates or dog registration in person is important to them, and we can’t lose sight of that.
“Feeding the appetite for digital services must live alongside traditional channels, requiring a balanced investment.”
And when you’re in the public eye, cost is a constant consideration. “We don’t have the luxury of spontaneously increasing capital expenditure like private enterprise. We work to long-term budgets, often stretching out over 10 years, so long-term forecasting is critical. As is full transparency.”
The recent electronic regulatory payments portal upgrade is an example of where strategic investment meant replacing several ageing systems with one centralised service. “Customers can now create a login and pay for a range of Council services in one place.”
For some Hamilton residents, access to technology can still be a barrier. For rural Hamiltonians, low band width prevents them from experiencing the full richness of digital services. On the flipside, low-income households might be fibre-ready but unable to afford the connection, let alone the devices. While for others, particularly the elderly, is a knowledge gap.
“I was reminded of this recently as I was assisting an elderly person on how to use an app on her smartphone as we both entered a building,” said Murray. “It’s all too easy to forget that our services must be accessible for a digitally diverse community, and this means maintaining equity through a multi-channel approach.”
Since March 2020, COVID-19 has thrown up its own share of challenges for Council’s Information Services team, as hundreds of desk-based staff pivoted to working from home literally overnight.
“We created a digital workforce that can work from virtually anywhere. COVID-19 simply brought forward what was already signposted as one of our strategic outcomes; to have an agile organisation.”
Murray said his team’s response to COVID-19 lockdowns and level changes has been the same for any technology issue they face: “how to respond to the needs of our community, without driving up costs”.
Agility has been a buzzword for the public sector in recent years, with local government reforms coming thick and fast. “We need to be agile enough to respond to the needs of all our stakeholders, and this includes the demands of central government. They have an admirable ambition of lifting digital interaction with all communities, but that requires a level of investment never before seen.”
Murray said councils share this goal. “We’re a large and complex organisation, so we need to find ways to make interactions with customers as simple as possible. We’re using reforms as the catalyst to address how do we do this better.”
Murray’s hope is that the community will see the value from the investment Council makes on their behalf. “We want our customers to enjoy an experience that is fit-for-purpose and in line with anything they have with any other contemporary organisation. But first we must tackle the inherent business capability to make us more efficient and effective to deliver those things.”