Published on in Public SectorCyber SecurityDigital Transformation

Local governments’ interactions with their constituents are constantly evolving.

In recent years, there has been a renewed focus on everything from community facilitation and support, to commissioning, communications, branding and quality assurance.

All in all, local governments across the country are being asked to do more with smaller budgets – and this has spurred digital transformation.

But while most people are now used to the convenience of completing tasks online, this familiarity has done little to allay their cyberattack worries.

Recent figures show that generally speaking, the publics’ trust in the government is very low (36%), and as we drift closer to becoming completely digital citizens, more of our personal information is at risk.

However, there are several local governments out there now leveraging emerging technologies to not only ease burdens and deliver better services, but also to further ensure the security of people’s data.

These local governments are proving that fostering an innovative and secure culture alongside digital transformation can, in the long-run, reduce the risk of cyberattacks – as I will show in this blog post.

Local government – digitally transformed

In the shadow of austerity cuts, many local governments began implementing digital solutions simply to offset their shrinking budgets.

For example, online self-service portals have helped save processing time and money while also driving progress in digital transactional services and mobile.

This has allowed some local governments such as the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham achieve a 100% digital shift when it comes to benefit claims, such as housing and council tax.

Other local governments have looked to open source solutions – software which the original source code is freely available – for their needs. For example, as more progressive recycling initiatives have increased tax burdens on landfills, have started using open source systems for refuse collection and are exploiting GPS mapping technology to improve the quality and cost of waste collection.

Other examples of common technological innovations include providing neighbourhood-based staff with tablet devices with preinstalled suites of software and apps. These devices both increase and speed up the reporting of local issues, as well as driving digital take-up within the community.

These adoptions have led to significant financial savings for councils: Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council saved £300,000 annually and improved their services. While the District of East Northamptonshire Council saved £200,000 annually and Middlesbrough Borough Council saved £150,000 a year, both using similar technologies.

Councils want to provide services that people want and need, and this is furthering their use of technology to both deploy services and obtain feedback from their communities, digitally.

But this approach comes with some inherent risks.

A culture of cybersecurity

Due to the nature of information they hold, local governments are one of the biggest targets of most forms of cyberattack. But perhaps fortunately, most of these threats have remained consistent over the last 10 years.

For example, phishing is still one of the most common forms of cyberattack against local governments. Bad actors try to influence email recipients into doing the wrong thing, such as clicking on a link or disclosing personal information.

The most effective measure against these forms of attack is to foster a stronger culture of security awareness across all areas of an organisation.

Because you can do almost everything right and still be breached.

Copeland Borough Council was hit with a ‘zero-day’ ransomware attack in 2017

Zero-day means the virus was brand new, so not yet registered by any anti-virus tools. So, once it had gained entry into Copeland’s system, there was nothing that their anti-virus software could do to mitigate the attack.

It crippled the council and took months to reinstate all its affected systems. Some staff teams lost years of work permanently.

However, as a result of this attack, leaders were motivated to take on a more proactive and well-thought out approach to their cybersecurity. They assembled a specialist IT team, adopted cloud-based systems for emergency resources and accelerated their flexible, agile working strategy.

These actions will not only help to prevent future attacks, but will better position the staff to work in a more modern, agile workplace.

This incident also reflects a wider public sector IT challenge.

Many councils have kept the mindset that integrating new software and processes stops when the technology has been installed. This overlooks the fact that there also needs to be an accompanying culture change at the heart of any digital transformation journey, including security.

This not only leaves councils vulnerable, but it prevents them from exploring and exploiting all the innovations out there which could further benefit – and protect – their constituents.

The future of local government

However, there are some local governments really embracing the idea of digital citizenship.

These ‘smart councils’ are using emerging technology such as AI, blockchain, IoT and RPA to enable and automate a variety of capabilities at the local government level.

AI for example is being leveraged by some local governments in the form of increasingly capable chatbots.

In 2016, Enfield local government deployed a virtual agent called Amelia to help improve local service delivery in the area.

The AI can analyse natural language and use context and logic to solve resident problems such as help them locate information or authenticate licenses.

DLT, along with many other emerging technologies, has been built with security in mind. So, these platforms often have new layers of security which can make them a better option for protecting citizens’ data.

Local government partnerships

Local governments will always be prime targets for attacks of all kinds.

Cybercriminals, hacktivists, insiders, terrorists and espionage are but a few of the threats that these bodies have to contend with. When you are responsible for the personal information of thousands of people, you can’t afford to be cavalier.

However, in the same breath, you can’t afford to stop digitally transforming because new threats –and solutions – arise every day.

Therefore, a trusted partner can help take a lot of the burden from councils who want to do more for their constituents, but from a responsible, informed position.

Because, we’re all on our way to becoming digital citizens, and it’s down to each local government to make sure their residents get there as painlessly as possible.

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