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State of the digital nation

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Digital innovation has been at the heart of the transformation discourse for a number of years, but whether it has delivered efficiency and service improvement is still in question.

LGC’s January roundtable, sponsored by Agilisys, brought together a high-level panel to discuss this question and where digitally enabled councils go next.


William Benson, chief executive, Tunbridge Wells BC

Nick Cobley, regional director, Agilisys

Lisa Commane, assistant director, ICT, transformation and customer services, Coventry City Council

Siobhan Coughlan, programme manager, productivity, Local Government Association

Rachel Dalton, features editor, LGC (chair)

Ailsa Gerrard, regional director, Agilisys

Stephanie Goad, assistant director of transformation, Medway Council

Mike Ibbitson, director of business services, Ealing LBC

Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive and director of customer transformation, Wigan MBC

Ricky Morton, digital transformation and smart cities lead, Kingston upon Thames RBC

Martin Nottage, director of innovation and change management, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

Matt Prosser, chief executive, Dorset Councils Partnership

The panel agreed most councils had already achieved or were working towards the most straightforward elements of digital transformation: creating digital strategies and delivering back-office and transactional activities digitally. Nick Cobley, regional director at Agilisys, said: “I’ve not met anyone in a long time within the sector who hasn’t got an ‘online something’. So, it’s just trying to work out what our next step is.”

Stephanie Goad, assistant director of transformation at Medway Council, said her council unlike most others did not have a digital strategy.

“We have a transformation strategy and programme, with digital embedded as an enabler for that,” she said. “It has a number of strands: customer service, the transactional side, workforce, a particular focus on leadership skills currently and the cultural aspects. We’ve found it  relatively simple to do the technology, but taking the people with us has proved a lot more challenging.”

Martin Nottage, director of innovation and change management at Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, said this digital activity was valuable but questioned whether it could be termed ‘transformational’. “We’ve made huge inroads in terms of digitising basic transactions. If I’m being really critical, I’d say that’s not really a transformation,” he said.

“There’s still a lot of work to do internally to help our staff to become more digital; how  can we really push our residents and others we serve  to be more digital if we’re not digital ourselves?

We don’t have a digital strategy. We have a transformation strategy, with digital embedded as an enabler for that. We’ve found it relatively simple to do the technology, but taking the people with us has proved a lot more challenging

Stephanie Goad, Medway Council

“Our primary focus around digital is how we use data. I think of data as one of our three key resources. We’ve got money: less and less of it. We’ve got people: but fewer and fewer. Data as an asset is actually growing. With the ‘internet of things’ and regeneration projects where we’ve got lots of opportunities to put sensors in everything we build, we’ve got a chance to grow data as an asset.

“We need to grow our capability to exploit data, to generate revenue or to support our demand management strategies by having smart, predictive tools that enable us to take informed, early interventions and we’re making progress.”

Mike Ibbitson, director of business services at Ealing LBC, said digital transformation could often be subsumed by wider conversations about service redesign, and this is where officers became distracted by detail: “Over the past couple of years we’ve been asking ‘what is it we’re doing with digital?’. Fundamentally we’re trying to redesign local government.

“As we move forward, I actually think we’re trying to redesign public services. Whilst the tactical saving [of] money is absolutely right,  with [for instance] bin rounds, I don’t actually want my bin collected every week or every fortnight, I just want it collected when it’s full. So we get distracted down that line and lose sight of the big goal to reform services.”

LGC features editor Rachel Dalton, chairing the debate, said this indicated local government needed to move to the next stage, which included “collaboration with public, private and voluntary sector partners; what do you do with data; and embedding the digital culture in the organisation”.

We need to grow our capability to exploit data, to generate revenue or to support our demand management strategies by having smart, predictive tools that enable us to take early interventions

Martin Nottage, Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

However, Siobhan Coughlan, programme manager for productivity at the Local Government Association, expressed a cautionary note. “In this room, we probably have a range of councils that are pretty much on top of the agenda but there are still some councils that have not necessarily done all the basics yet.”

Research by Agilisys had picked up much the same point, said regional director Ailsa Gerrard: “Over 65% of local authorities said a digital strategy was absolutely key to [a high priority for] enabling transformation but what about that 35% for whom it wasn’t?”

The panel agreed technological innovation sat at the core of digital transformation but that technology had to be designed around the user to influence behavioural change. Ricky Morton, digital transformation and smart cities lead at Kingston upon Thames RBC, said: “It’s about bringing the people who are going to experience that journey into the conversation, and certainly that’s the approach we are looking to take.”

“That’s really important,” agreed William Benson, chief executive at Tunbridge Wells BC. “Some of that comes topdown; it’s going to be very difficult to do if you haven’t got managerial and political leadership behind it. But it’s also about operating in a different way structurally; unlocking people who have these skills.

“One of the things we’ve done in Tunbridge Wells is with our pay structure. It’s built around performance, of course, but 60% is what people do and 40% is the way they do it; how people work, in terms of collaboration and user-centred design.”

Mr Ibbitson raised the issue of the local decisionmaking framework. “Part of the cultural problem is that digital moves so fast. It also is fundamentally about empowering people to make quick decisions; how does that sit with a democratic structure that has always depended on committees or more formal decision-making methods?” he asked.

Matt Prosser, chief executive at Dorset Councils Partnership, said: “Technology isn’t the barrier; everything is out there. The public sector is perhaps not known for its ability to adapt at speed and we get wrapped up in our procurement exercises and by the time we’ve implemented, the technology has moved on.”

There is something about being clear about what the problem is and taking it right back to basics

Lisa Commane, Coventry City Council

Councils could become so caught up in thinking about high-level digital transformation they forgot small, incremental digital change could make a big difference, argued Ms Coughlan. “Most councils now use GPS mapping to plan their bin collection routes. In terms of digital, that doesn’t get the Government Digital Service tick in the box but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s digital, because it is probably saving your council  [hundreds of thousands of pounds] a year.”

“There is something about being clear about what the problem is and taking it right back to basics,” said Lisa Commane, assistant director of ICT, transformation and customer services at Coventry City Council.

“One of our biggest text transactions is around housing benefit: we send out millions of letters a year. Yet some of those are completely unintelligible.

“You can put digital processes over the top of that but if you are writing those letters in plain English, then you’re massively going to affect demand in a positive way anyway.”

Councils also needed to get better at sharing their knowledge in this area, said Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive and director of customer transformation at Wigan MBC. She mentioned she had taken part in the judging of the LGC Awards Digital Council of the Year category.

“The learning just from those seven councils shortlisted was amazing. To get those seven in touch – to take the best bits and the bits where people weren’t learning – if you put that mix together, it could be so powerful,” she said.

Councils could also make greater use of the relationships they have with private sector partners, Ms McKenzie-Folan argued.

“We’ve got Vodafone as our mobile provider, and actually they’ve got a sense of corporate social responsibility but we’ve never really tapped into that. So [we should be asking] come on Vodafone, what can you give back to Wigan? Can we do something on social inclusion, can we do some internet-themed workshops, can you support some of our SMEs?”

“We’re doing exactly the same with Microsoft,” said Ms Commane. “There’s a massively untapped resource out there, whether it’s in terms of regeneration or the SME point. SMEs really need support to understand the potential of digital in their businesses.”

Ms Dalton asked how councils could use data better. Panellists said councils were using data analytics to tackle fraud, rogue landlords, A&E admissions and council tax compliance.

“The bigger wins for us are around predictive modelling,” said Mr Nottage. “We’ve got a model that assesses the risk of every child in our case management system being looked after. They get a score every single day. We’ve also got models around the risk of tenants going into rent arrears and a prototype assessing the risk of people in the private sector becoming homeless. Adult social care is next.”

As the discussion drew to a close, Ms Dalton asked the panellists what they would take away from it.

“We’re finally recognising the scale of the challenge; that we never stand still. There is a lot of good experience out there that we should share better,” said Mr Morton.

“The thing for me is about letting go in terms of data. We’re hanging on to our data too tightly and not seeing what the creativity of the wider community might bring,” said Ms Goad.

“The biggest message for me is around people. It is political and management and leadership; it’s people actually doing the work; and ultimately it’s the people we serve,” said Ms McKenzie-Folan.

Mr Prosser agreed: “It’s not about the digital solutions, they’re not the barriers; it’s us. We need to increase our emphasis on cultural leadership and on collaboration but also remind ourselves that the more we collaborate, the more egos there are, the more cultures there are and the more challenge there is.”

“Digital infrastructure is for me a real biggie; we need all to keep talking about that because none of the sexy stuff will work if we don’t get that right,” said Ms Commane.

“Predictive analytics is [the idea] I’ll go back with,” said Tunbridge Wells’s Mr Benson. 

User-centred design and the potential of analytics were also key for Mr Ibbitson. “We’re really just starting with analytics. So, I’m thinking how can I design that to be more collaborative, to be not just designing it for my authority?”

“My take-away comes in two parts. One is reassurance. Councils are fantastic in the work they’re doing and we’ve got to better celebrate and encourage that,” said the LGA’s Ms Coughlan.

“The second is challenge, in terms of how can we better connect up some of that good work that’s going on, to help the sector help itself? With the limited resources we’ve got, how can we better do that?”

“For me, it is about how we can help the facilitation around sharing. We have a broad range of customers, so what can we do to promote that a bit better and create some more momentum?” said Ms Gerrard.

“I like the ‘behaviour not process’ theme; so the thing to fix is how we go about doing this, not the process of how we do it,” said Mr Cobley.

“Collaboration: I’m hearing more and more about that. Where people are trying to get to is invariably the same. But where they’re starting from and the extent to which people can build on the work of others, is really interesting and worthy of some more attention.”


Nick Cobley

Nick Cobley

Nick Cobley, Agilisys

Expert view: The key to true integration is continued collaboration

For most local authorities digital transformation has been a success, with the vast majority of the public able to access most local services digitally wherever they live in the UK.

However, before we consider digital transformation complete, the suggestion from the participants at our roundtable was that we should consider what problem we were trying to solve in the first place.

Whilst we have enabled the public to engage online, the question that continued to play on the minds of our attendees was: “Have we modified our behaviour to become fully digital organisations? Or are we still fulfilling service demands in the way we always have?”

If the latter is the case then it’s likely there remains unclaimed value on the table in the form of integration and process improvement, which could release valuable resources.

The next logical step on the digital journey for local authorities seems to be driven by a new asset that digital transformation has created – data. While many local authorities have only just begun to realise the potential for this asset and the benefits it may bring, we are already seeing tangible value being driven by using data to manage demand before it reaches a council.

Of course the challenge is how best to harness these benefits. We all carry the scars of trying to implement a good idea where it turned out being right was not the same as being acceptable.

Fortunately, there is an increased appetite to work better together. Our roundtable group reflected that although hearing about what has worked well at one particular authority is of interest, it is not necessarily useful. More beneficial is the sharing of the challenges faced when implementing and how these were navigated. The essence being that peer group engagements need to develop from ‘what’ has been achieved to ‘how’.

So is digital transformation delivering real benefits? In a word, yes. An amazing amount of progress has been made across the public sector, with much of the innovation coming from local government – and it follows that a great many challenges have been overcome. But how can we drive even more benefits from digital transformation?

Collaboration. There was strong support from the group for the idea that while our projects and programmes might be new, the associated delivery challenges and risks are seldom bespoke and inevitably our peers and colleagues have addressed something similar before. Capturing that awareness of how they have navigated those challenges is likely to improve both the delivery of your own programme and enable more benefits to be recognised.

The conclusion? Keep talking. Nothing is new. Your peer or your colleague may have the knowledge that will enable you to squeeze more benefit from your digital transformation programme.

Roundtable sponsored by







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