The rise of low code in local government

During the pandemic, we’ve seen examples of local authorities moving from hypothesis to a live service, that’s been tested and iterated, within a matter of days. Low-code has made that possible; a type of software that allows non-technical people to create user interfaces like online forms without needing to do any traditional computer programming or coding.

Low-code platforms are able to produce neat digital services through configuration, rather than the normal route which demands service creators have good coding skills. This has allowed councils to deploy services at impressive speed. We all know that responding at pace is important in a crisis, and with many vulnerable people needing support right now, the rapid deployment of digital services has been vital.

This recent experience has demonstrated to councils up and down the country that service development and implementation does not always need to take months, sometimes just days. So many councils are now grabbing the opportunity low-code presents with both hands.


However, while it can be a quick way to deliver a service, there are potential downsides. If you’re not clear about the outcomes you want to achieve, using low-code can be a quick way to deliver a service that doesn’t actually meet your users’ needs. Councils can also find themselves locked in with one provider and facing substantial hidden costs in future when they need to make changes to the system.

It is now well established that low-code can be used to build good services on cheaper technology. But it is important to remember that good services still require an understanding of your users. The ability to design simple, clear, and effective processes remains key. Councils still need good user research, service design, content design, and product management to avoid ending up with ineffective, inefficient services. Low-code or not, it’s vital to avoid falling into this trap.

If those skills don’t already exist within the council, it’s worth seeking out a digital agency with that expertise to help you build your service and, in the process, develop the capability of your own team so you can operate more independently in future.

When low-code works best

Low-code is often best used to deliver something relatively small and discrete that needs to be spun up quickly, like a tactical service or website. Low-code is ideal if councils need a form to gather information from a group of users at a fast pace, like identifying people who are vulnerable and need support as restrictions come into place.

Doing this through bespoke software is expensive if you don’t have the necessary in-house technical expertise. Just one developer’s time from a larger consultancy can cost from $1,600 to $2,000 per day. There are definitely substantial cost and time savings to be made from using low-code rather than building bespoke software. That’s why low-code has been so invaluable to cash poor councils, as they’ve responded at speed to the pandemic.  

Despite the above caveats, it is still possible to use low-code to build a more complicated, end-to-end service. For example, one that includes a workflow, database, and back office management, if it doesn’t need to be integrated with much else. But building this type of service in low-code means you are likely to be locked in to using that low-code platform for the lifetime of that service -- iteration and growth becomes difficult. Open source low-code platforms aren’t common, and it would be best to avoid getting into this situation altogether.

The future for low-code

Making the best use of your existing data, and your existing infrastructure, is vital to delivering effective services. So it’s important to remember that low-code definitely isn’t a good foundation for your entire technology strategy. If you want to make good use of it, you need to build that foundation through a wider digital transformation effort, one that breaks apart your legacy systems, and provides APIs for data and systems that can be used by new services built around user needs.

The quiet revolution of low-code has been gathering pace in recent years, and the pandemic may have driven even more councils to take the plunge. Against this backdrop, the development of local digital services could be seeing a permanent shift in trajectory.

As long as you’re clear about the limitations, and use it in the right way, low-code can deliver services that meet user needs and save money.

Image credit: Visual Generation / Shutterstock

Alex Yedigaroff is head of transformation at dxw

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