We spoke with representatives from Suffolk, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Kent, Oxfordshire and Surrey. And it quickly became clear that the pandemic had changed attitudes towards technology.
What followed was a wide-ranging discussion about the challenges and opportunities of the past year. Here’s three conclusions which should interest anyone in local government:
1) Homeworking is here to stay… and this will have consequences
Most of the participants in the roundtable were working from home. The sounds of roadworks, or children playing, occasionally filtered onto our call, but the conversation flowed all the same.
From a BT perspective, we were pleased to report that our business found the transition to enabling homeworking relatively straightforward. County councils, for their part, remained productive and involved in constituents’ lives despite the change in working environment.
Being at home has helped many of us juggle responsibilities in a year that’s involved health scares and home-schooling, but it does take a toll. We miss our colleagues. We miss catching up over coffee. We miss bumping into each other in corridors and kitchens.
It comes down to this: meeting online isn’t the same as meeting face to face. There’s simply no substitute for real human contact.
Across the nation, the results of homeworking have been variously good, bad and ugly. So, should we stick with something that’s good for the environment but means big change for city centres and impacts on mental health?
“It’s a balance.” This phrase came up again and again. If the pandemic has proven that homeworking is viable for a lot of us, it has also awakened us to the importance of meeting in person.
In the future, organisations – including councils – might choose to meet up several times a month, rather than every day, and in small teams, rather than as whole buildings or operating units.
Time will tell whether they choose to hold these meetings in offices, hired rooms, cafes or other venues. In any case, county councils will be adapting to working with partners and stakeholders without formal headquarters.
2) Businesses and public-sector organisations have suffered, but they’ve also transformed in incredible ways
BT Group has customers in every industry, so we were able to speak to the County Council Network about the variety of ways we saw businesses change in 2020.
Organisations faced serious financial and operational challenges. Some, like hotels and live venues, struggled to pay their bills. Others, such as garden centres and sport retailers, were almost overwhelmed by demand.
From March onwards, many businesses moved their services online. Every week, there was a new press release describing a novel way to entertain and maximise the benefits of spending more time on the internet.
And, for the first time, mainstream organisations were using 5G. In 2020, we met students who had taken virtual field trips, doctors who could diagnose patients remotely and scientists who were busy monitoring protected landscapes from afar.
The infrastructure was in place, but could most organisations take advantage of it? Did they have the right skills, policies and processes to get the most out of fibre broadband and 5G? The county councils had their doubts. It seemed like many businesses were only just realising how much they could benefit from using these networks.
Members of the County Councils Network plan on leading the way. To quote one member:
“We want to accelerate our move to the cloud. It’s already given us resilience and game-changing opportunities for collaboration. So, we won’t be returning to the way things were before the pandemic and we won’t be working the way we have during lockdown. We’ll find a new way that’s somewhere in between.”
3) We must make sure our society is inclusive as well as technologically advanced
If the events of 2020 caused businesses to adopt new technologies, what was happening in Britain’s homes?
In answering this question, the members of the County Councils Network spoke passionately about the ‘digital divide’ – the gap between those who are able to benefit from the internet and those who are not.
This gap was on stark display during lockdown. Some people were able to adjust to life online – finding educational videos for their kids and catching up with friends on Zoom. Others were left behind.
If we believed in the old stereotypes, we’d expect the group of disadvantaged people to be elderly. But the digital divide has as much to do with income and education as age.
Once home-schooling and virtual classes became widespread, it was impossible to ignore the large number of young people who were also excluded.
How can we correct this? Innovators and entrepreneurs will help Britain recover from the effects of the pandemic. But, as they develop new technologies, the public and private sector must work together to establish support schemes and training programmes that will close the digital divide.
In this, BT hopes to lead by example. We already run a free programme that helps people learn digital skills. It’s called Skills for Tomorrow and it’s designed to help everyone from families, parents and schoolchildren to teachers, professionals and jobseekers – anyone who wants and needs digital skills.
Similarly to county councils around the UK, we are still grappling with many of the questions raised in 2020. By forcing us to keep our distance from one another, the pandemic has challenged long-held assumptions about the way we learn, work and govern.
The roundtable gave us a brilliant opportunity to look for answers together. It was a conversation between people from different backgrounds, people with different professions and perspectives, but who fundamentally agreed on one point: as the UK becomes a more technologically advanced society, it must also become a more inclusive one.
This is how we hope county councils will think about tech as they move forward into 2021.
London, South & East Public Sector Director, Enterprise
Interested in building a better future?
On January 26, we’re hosting an event to take a closer look at breakthrough green technology and the role it can play in supporting the UK’s green recovery.