Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Reasons for optimism as recovery begins

OPINION: Technology is helping councils adapt to a changing climate says industry veteran, Peter Suchting

In late January, NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) suggested we might soon see an easing to the ‘triple-dip’ La Niña conditions which have delivered the wettest summer on record on North Island and one of the driest to the South.

Of course, within hours Auckland would experience its worst weather event ever, with a season’s worth of rain in a single day, four lives tragically lost, flooding in many parts of the city, widespread property damage and a state of emergency declared.

As the clean-up begins, many Kiwi communities dealing with storm or flood-damaged homes, sodden soils and full catchments will be hoping NIWA’s prediction of return to more normal conditions this Autumn and Winter is correct.

For the country’s councils, custodians of billions of dollars in community-owned infrastructure and assets who have been dealing with the impact of three years of unseasonal weather, it will be time to take stock and plan ahead.

The last few years have challenged councils like never before. Few could have predicted, at this point in 2020, the disruption of the global pandemic would have on local communities. Throughout it, local governments have been on the front lines.

As often happens in times of crisis, Kiwi councils stepped up and took the lead in helping their communities to meet the challenges, pull together and move forward.

Behind the scenes too, council administrators responded by investing in innovation projects to increase the resilience and agility of their operations, streamline manual processes, reduce duplication and allow their teams to work more effectively.

But while La Niña might be about to wane, councils are still facing significant headwinds, including rising costs, flat revenues and staffing challenges. On top of these there is the fatigue felt after three years spent in ‘crisis mode’ and, of course, climate change.

Fortunately, there is good news. I see reasons for optimism almost daily in my conversations with council leaders throughout New Zealand. I’ve been in and around local governments for two decades and rarely have I seen so much activity and innovation.

The ability to work anywhere, anytime and from any device has become the new normal for office-based teams, but it is arguably more important for those in the field, especially since many Kiwi councils obviously operate over large areas and many smaller communities.

In Gisborne, for example, the ability of field teams to interact with head office in real-time is helping them to be more efficient, lower costs and environmental impacts, and fix reported problems sooner, delivering a better experience for the community.

Other councils are rapidly moving more services online. This means residents and visitors can engage with their local authority—whether for a planning issue, rubbish complaint or permit application—at a time that suits them, not just during business hours.

Still others are investing in new asset management systems to improve maintenance and fix problems before they happen. Since even a relatively small council can be responsible for millions of dollars in assets, the potential is clear.

The transformation happening within Kiwi councils also means residents requests need no longer trigger a flurry of emails, potentially leading to duplicated effort, but can instead be captured in a single workflow that integrates across different systems and departments.

The common thread between these examples is cloud technology or, more precisely, its modern iteration, Software as a Service (SaaS). Without getting too technical, switching to SaaS is akin to going from buying music on CDs to listening to it via services like Spotify.

One benefit is that councils are no longer required to buy, build and maintain data centres or reliant on them as a single-point-of-failure when the unexpected happens. This not only reduces the risk of cyber-attacks but can also reduce downtime during severe weather events.

The company I work for learned this lesson the hard way. We were already a 20-year-old successful software company in 2011 when tragic floods in Australia almost cut us off from our data centres – and customers. The experience led us to reinvent ourselves.

Of course, the money to do this doesn’t fall out of the sky. But, as many Kiwi councils who’ve followed our lead and already ditched their datacentres are experiencing, the benefits of moving to SaaS outweigh the cost.

The biggest savings typically come from reductions in the cost of buying and maintaining IT infrastructure, lower compliance costs and increased labour productivity and employee retention. There also indirect savings, like reduced energy costs and lower carbon emissions.

More importantly though, finding ways to operate more efficiently, effectively and to do more with less is helping to put local governments around the country in a better position to step up and do what they can to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate.

It may not be sexy but even something as prosaic as using SaaS to better manage regulatory compliance is helping councils like Gisborne shift its resources and attention to where they can deliver the greatest benefit.

While NIWA was reluctant to predict weather patterns beyond the middle of the year, it is clear the climate is changing. Councils are at the forefront of meeting that challenge. Thankfully, they’ve never been in a better place to do it and that’s reason for optimism.

Peter Suchting is a 20-year veteran of the local government sector and currently industry director with Australian-founded software company, TechnologyOne.

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