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Alex Bailey: Embracing digital gives councils innovation in their DNA

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Alex Bailey, chief executive at Adur & Worthing Councils, doesn’t like or use the phrase “transformation”.

Whatever the term used, however, there are few in the world of local government who would disagree that the councils in West Sussex are among the more innovative in the sector when it comes to digital service provision. In an article for LGC last summer, Mr Bailey reported how the council had saved £17m through shared services.

“Lots of consultants use the term ’transformation’ and it’s become toxified,” he said. “It smacks of self-aggrandisement. 

“If you transform your systems then brilliant, but I’ve seen a lot of transformation programmes start out and hit the buffers. That’s because it’s very often just used in a programme for cutting stuff without really changing the approach or the service that you’re trying to deliver.”

Councils that really want to pare back costs and improve services, Mr Bailey said, could do worse than to consider sharing services with neighbouring councils. 

“Ten years ago, [Adur and Worthing] became some of the first councils in the UK to effectively share everything. At the time that was considered high risk whereas now it’s considered one of the first things you do,” he said. 

This focus on collaboration and commercialisation was one of the main reasons the council chose to recruit him, Mr Bailey said. 

“I always say they brought me in because I speak three languages: public, private and third [sector],” he said. “There was clearly a lot of work to be done in terms of relationships with communities and other key stakeholders, and also in the way they were operating themselves as a business.” 

Immediately prior to his arrival at the council five years ago, Mr Bailey worked as the head of national fundraising at children’s charity NSPCC, having worked previously as a corporate lawyer, a business consultant and director of strategy at Brighton & Hove City Council.

Yet it was his work at the NSPCC that Mr Bailey said had most affected his vision for the councils.

“I did a bit of a turnaround at NSPCC on their fundraising stuff, a lot of which was digital. I got intrigued there by the thought of how you can genuinely take certain approaches of this in the public service world – what would that look like?” 

Whereas 10 years ago the vast majority of charity fundraising was organised through a paper-based pledge system (“a complete pain in the backside”), today donors give money via websites and end up handing over useful personal information as well. 

“Digital business models have completely eaten the old analogue business models in fundraising,” said Mr Bailey.

 Upon arrival in West Sussex, Mr Bailey set about establishing these new models through a new team of technology experts. Building the majority of “low-code” applications in-house, Mr Bailey said, helped add flexibility and adaptability to the council’s services. 

“Although that would not sound that revolutionary in a lot of business systems, in local government that genuinely is quite unusual,” he said. 

The alternative was to mimic many of England’s other councils and pay “an arm and a leg” to software firms for programs that would need constant revision and might not work. 

The team first started in “easy places”, such as communication forms for ordering green bins online, before moving on to a “quite significant housing-repairs system” which Mr Bailey said is “working pretty well, touch wood”. 

Ultimately, Mr Bailey’s intent is to build these digital services and open them up to community and voluntary sector organisations. 

“You start to create some pretty rich data about your place that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to connect together,” he said. 

That data can then be used to tackle some “really difficult” social issues, such as homelessness prevention and increasing mental health and emotional resilience in young people. 

“I think it’s fair to say we have been learning as we’ve been going along,” Mr Bailey said. “No-one would say the first years were incredibly successful but we’ve now developed a set of competencies and capabilities that mean we’re pretty good at doing this stuff. 

“We do the service design with our system partners and then what we’re able to do is put a digital wrapper around those services if we need to in exactly the same way as any digital business would.” 

Ultimately, Mr Bailey said, Adur and Worthing only became good at this digital work because of the councils’ leadership style which was formed out of a decision to merge the management of the two councils into a partnership. 

“This actually gave the council some innovation in its DNA, so members and others were quite happy to try things out and take some brave calls at times,” he said. 

“There’s also the money that we’ve saved which has really enabled us to have some capacity to innovate. It’s hard to innovate when you’re constantly trying to fight fires.”

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