Local Government Magazine

Alex Gelbak: Go disrupt

Go disrupt: Become your council’s digital hero Featured Image

Many councils are just starting to deliver great digital experiences to residents on mobiles. Now, new paradigms like the internet of things, big data, personal AI, natural language processing and augmented reality mean it will soon be time to rethink everything again. 
So what are smart councils doing?

For the past decade, Alex Gelbak has been driving digital innovation and disruption. He’s the Melbourne-based director of innovation at Seamless – a company that specialises in making it simpler for residents to access government information and services. Alex has made it his mission to try to understand how cities across the world can leverage new technology to solve old problems. He now works with close to 100 cities and government departments to discover new ways to improve communication, engagement and online service delivery.

Alex was a keynote speaker at the 2016 ALGIM Web & Digital Symposium in Wellington this month. He shared his ideas on disruptive technology here with Local Government Magazine.

Local Government Magazine: What exactly is disruptive technology?

Alex Gelbak: Disruptive technology provides us with entirely new ways to solve old problems. Not to be mistaken for iterative innovation, which improves on an existing system or process, disruption innovation throws the old process out the window and finds entirely new ways of doing things.

How does it currently affect communications and / or engagement for local government professionals?

The availability and widespread use of social media has triggered a power-flip.

Today, anyone has a voice that can reverberate as far as a community will carry it, without spending a cent. More than ever before, local government professionals need to engage early and frequently with their community.

I’m seeing local government professionals starting to use innovative, lightweight online tools to experiment with new ways to communicate and engage with their local communities. Things like Disqus that can easily be plugged into a website and allows councils to run conversations online, online forms tools to digitise paper-based processes, and Crazy Egg which helps councils see how people are using their websites and improve from there.

Aside from social media, there are many other things happening that are driving innovation and disruption in local government.

Tighter budgets and rate capping are forcing councils to look for smarter, more efficient ways to serve their communities. Increasingly tech-savvy residents are becoming more critical and vocal about how they want to engage and do business with council. And a growing number of forward thinking, civic-minded and tech-savvy professionals entering local government are beginning to drive change from within.

How can we be prepared for something that can’t be predicted?

We need to acknowledge that we now live in a world that is in a state of constant technological flux, the outcomes of which are changing – hopefully for the better – every part of our lives.

With that in mind, councils need to ensure they are not locking themselves into long-term commitments with their technology. This is where the move towards SaaS / cloud solutions, which offer more freedom and portability, is rapidly gaining traction.

Which councils are leading the charge?

Small pockets of innovation are happening across the world.

In Finland, for example, the city of Helsinki is only one of more than a dozen municipalities in a metropolitan area of almost 1.5 million people. So in terms of urban data, if you’re only looking at Helsinki, you’re missing out on more than half of the picture.

Helsinki and three of its neighbouring cities are now banding together to solve that problem. Through an entity called Helsinki Region Infoshare they are bringing together their data so that a fuller picture of the metro area can come into view. (See box story “Helsinki”.)

Over in the US, New York City has opened up its data via an online dashboard and empowered civic-minded technologists to produce all sorts of useful new insights and perspectives about the city.

Most importantly, New York City can now use these new tools and insights to inform policy and decision-making, 
and all at no development cost to the city. (See box story “New York City”.)

Closer to home, in Australia, Yarra Ranges Shire Council in Victoria, City of Ryde in New South Wales and City of Tea Tree Gully in South Australia have taken a radically different approach to how they inform, engage and deliver services to their communities.

Rather than focusing on the needs and priorities of council and letting that drive their digital strategy, they have put the needs of their residents at the centre of their communication and service delivery strategy.

City of Tea Tree Gully has collected and categorised its most common and popular requests by each type of channel and request. It is now using a data-driven approach to work towards making all of its services available online. (See box story “City of Tea Tree Gully”.)

What are the biggest stumbling blocks for councils getting to grips with working in a world of disruptive technology?

The fear of change and risk of failure are certainly two of the most common hurdles I’ve faced. And even when these risks are addressed, job protectionism can also play a role in stifling disruptive innovation which threatens to automate processes through customer self-service.

What are the gaps we need to bridge? Skills? Knowledge? Vision? Big balls? Other?

We need to start with vision, and have that come from leadership level. We then need some confidence and calculated risk-taking (big balls as you put it) from the management level to sponsor and initiate change. And lastly, we need skills and knowledge from the execution level to deliver the change.

What are the great ways to bridge those gaps?

A good starting point would be to put innovation and change on the agenda at council meetings, and simply start the conversation.

How can people working in local government prep themselves for the future?

There are so many great and free resources online, along with many local Meetup.com groups in each city that bring together like-minded people for a night of knowledge sharing, ideas and innovations. Find the topics you’re interested in and just see what’s out there.

Also, it’s important to look outside our shores and see what’s happening in other cities across the world. Our counterparts in the UK and the US generally face similar problems. It’s always interesting to see how they are solving these problems and if anything they have come up with can be replicated here, with localisation.

Lastly, I like to avoid tunnel vision by looking at the disruption and innovation happening outside the local government sector and think about how those disruptions may impact or can be leveraged by council.

Engagement is a lovely phrase. But don’t ratepayers just want councils to get on with the job of providing services?

I don’t think it’s about loud, constant, in-your-face engagement. We are bombarded with so many messages every day. The last thing we want in our lives is council over-engaging on every decision it needs to make.

But I think ratepayers would appreciate the ability to easily have a meaningful conversation with council about the topics important to them, in a language they understand, and at a time and place that’s convenient for them.

Engagement isn’t about short bursts of discussion around key consultations. It’s about ongoing, authentic two-way dialogue with the community about the things that are important to them.

You’re an advocate for “simpler, smarter and more beautiful local government”. What does that look like?

For me, it means residents and ratepayers of all ages and technical abilities being able to access any government service at anytime, without needing to know the language of government, or how government works.

We’re holding our triennial local body elections in October this year. What attributes make for an ideal elected member in a world of disruptive technology?

Simply put, someone who’s prepared to stand for change, and who isn’t scared of ruffling a few feathers along 
the way.

To be clear, we don’t need technologists to be an elected member in order to create change. But we do need elected members who genuinely want change and are prepared to embrace technology as a means to achieve that.


The Helsinki Region Infoshare website shares open data on a wide variety of topics including construction, city planning and real estate, environment and nature, jobs and industries, and housing. www.hri.fi/en/

New York City

An online New York City dashboard includes open data sets covering everything from contracts awarded, to taxi trips taken, schedules for public hearings, where the wi-fi hotspots are, and even where the up to 600,000 trees are located on the streets and their type. bit.ly/NYC_Dashboard

City of Tea Tree Gully

Over in South Australia, City of Tea Tree Gully (CTTG) is working towards making all of its services available online, 24/7, across any device via its eServices portal.

Based in the north-eastern suburbs of Adelaide, CTTG serves a population of over 95,000 residents and covers over 95 square kilometres.

Although it already offered basic online payments and services to residents, the interface of the existing CTTG system was 
clunky and difficult for residents to use. And there was no support for accessibility tools or mobile devices. So perhaps it’s not surprising that uptake of online services by CTTG’s community was quite low.

What’s more, the platform only offered a small amount of online requests and transaction types. So residents still had to call or visit council’s service centre for most requests. And this, in turn, was hiking council’s customer service costs.

CTTG engaged specialist firm Seamless to develop detailed functional specifications and process flows, and create a web services standard to support the integrations.

Seamless teamed up with Civica, which provides CTTG’s Authority CRM system, to integrate SeamlessCMS with CTTG’s CRM system and build the eServices portal.

The first phase of the rollout focused on allowing customers to log a request for a range of council services, book a video conference with council and watch a livestream of council meetings.

This is being followed by steps to allow residents to pay for all council services online, lodge and track development applications, book council facilities and make library reservations.

Seamless director of innovation Alex Gelbak says it’s the work that’s happening behind the scenes that excites him the most.

“From day one, CTTG acknowledged that its eServices portal project was not just a story of technology change: it was a story of an organisation-wide cultural change.”

Alex says that, well before the technology discussion began, CTTG’s leadership started working with the front-line customer service teams to understand what it meant for the city to be a 24/7 digital local government.

“No longer just a communications or IT project, CTTG’s customer service team – those closest to the customer – played a critical role in informing the design and user experience decisions for the eServices portal, and then assisting walk-in customers in transitioning to self-servicing online.”

Alex says that, rather than digital self-service threatening the security of the customer service teams, CTTG turned its customer service department into a key advocate and driver for the uptake of its eServices portal, and empowered each team member to be a digital hero.

“The groundwork that CTTG did before the project, and the ongoing internal cultural change council is rolling out, is one of the most well-planned and executed digital transformations I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in,” he says.

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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