How can radical technological change improve things for citizens? Nic Paton reports
- Lisa Beckett, website and business development manager, Kingston upon Thames RBC and Sutton LBC
- Nick Golding, editor, LGC (chair)
- Andrew Gough, client services development director, Agilisys
- Richard Grice, director for customers, transformation and resources, Haringey LBC
- Sean Grimes, managing director, Cloud and IT services, Agilisys
- Jason Kitcat, executive director, corporate development, Essex CC
- Vanessa Lucas, senior policy officer, Solace
- Leigh Whitehouse, director of finance and corporate services, Bexley LBC
‘‘For local government, fixing the ‘digital plumbing’ has the potential to be truly transformative.”
So said local government minister Rishi Sunak in July at the launch of the Local Digital Declaration, the initiative uniting the government and local authorities to encourage better design and technology use in providing and transforming services.
But can better – even transformative – outcomes be achieved through radical technological change? And against a bleak, financially tight backdrop can local government fix its dependence on inflexible, expensive, segregated technology that can’t transform things? Is technology the answer, the problem, or a bit of both?
It was with these questions in mind that LGC, in association with cloud and digital transformation specialist Agilisys, brought together an expert panel to discuss whether the best outcomes for citizens can be achieved through radical technological change.
LGC editor Nick Golding started by suggesting that, while many in local government remain deeply worried about the future, “there is hope, and lots of that hope is in technology”.
Andrew Gough, client services development director at Agilisys, said: “The big thing we’re interested in is how this actually happens on the ground with people. What are the blockers and enablers around this, such as culture or procurement?”
Mr Golding asked panellists to outline what they were doing and some of the problems they faced.
“There are two primary areas we are looking at,” said Richard Grice, director for customers, transformation and resources at Haringey LBC. “One is how we use technology to transform the way the organisation operates for us – so robotic process automation.”
The council has already seen significant change in automation of housing benefit processing. “It ordinarily takes us about 240-person days twice a year. We programmed a robot – a laptop essentially – to do that work this year. It did it in 19 days, and it didn’t make an error. That sort of change you can’t ignore.
“The other bit is the application of the internet of things in the care field. There is loads going on all around the country, but none at scale.
“We’ve done some smallscale pilot work around care and waking nights, how you can use sensor technology and data and more offsite work to have one person, in effect, sleeping in or staying awake for several different people at the same time and only responding when they need to. But, again, scaling that stuff up is quite challenging.”
The problem for us is the range of different levels of technological advancements
Vanessa Lucas, Solace
Air quality checking and monitoring technology within social care and to enable elderly residents to remain in their homes were areas of focus for Kingston upon Thames RBC and Sutton LBC, said Lisa Beckett, website and business development manager for both councils.
“But, really, it is about getting the scale of these things. It’s all right if you’re piloting with 100 people, but across our two boroughs we’ve nearly got 400,000 people,” she said. “People don’t want to see failure, people don’t want to see wasted money, so it is whether they’re willing to take that risk and try these things out and reap the benefits.”
“Like most places, we’ve got more pilots than Heathrow Airport in social care,” said Jason Kitcat, executive director of corporate development at Essex CC. “But a lot of the cool techie things only work if we can get them to people before they’ve become clients of council social care.
“Using an Apple watch to get someone more healthy and active is great. But by the time they meet our criteria – which we know have got tougher and tougher as we’ve tried to control spend – it’s too late. So I think there is a dose of realism there.”
Vanessa Lucas, senior policy officer at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, said: “The problem for us is the range of different levels of technological advancements. We’re trying to provide the leadership and policy help to rural counties that might be very far behind and just starting channel shifting, for example.
“We’re trying to work out best practice, things like the Local Digital Declaration, potentially getting better at being collective buyers, getting better at sharing best practice, and sharing some of that risk without compromising the local agenda or devolution.”
“We’re a bit earlier on the journey,” said Leigh Whitehouse, director of finance and corporate services at Bexley LBC.
“We’ve got a revs and bens [revenues and benefits] contract that has been outsourced for about 25 years, seven in its latest iteration. We’ve got an outsourced IT service, which is coming towards the end of its life as well.
“We’re only really just building some of the capability and starting to think about things in the way we need to. Some of that is around IT but it is also around insight and service design. It’s about trying to connect that to provider capability to be able to identify what the big problems are, and how you deal with those challenges.”
Sean Grimes, managing director, cloud and IT services at Agilisys, said: “I’m really interested in the scale question. We see lots and lots of pilots going on, some of them with great results, but then they maybe lack the ambition.
“You wonder how you join things up to make things more effective. Everyone knows automating high volume transactions is a bit of a no-brainer. But how do you go about that?”
The language of digital transformation – ‘agile’ or even just ‘digital’ – sometimes got in the way, said Ms Beckett. “We all say we’re agile and we’re open to that methodology but, actually, I don’t think we’re authentically living that.
“We’re still writing very detailed business plans and specifications and we’ve still got all of our documentation and our boards we have to report into. But we also have all the structures around agile and all that language, so we’re having ‘stand-ups’ and ‘scrum-masters’ and all of that.
“Services hear that we’re doing ‘sprint’ number three, but sprinting to where? ‘Digital’ as a word is a barrier – we’re ‘doing’ digital to you or you’re doing it to us. But what is the actual deliverable?”
The debate trawled topics like skills and competencies, the dearth of younger ‘digital natives’ within authorities, the benefit of having more common platforms and standards, challenges around procurement, and the need for proactive leadership.
Nevertheless, did panellists feel better outcomes could be achieved through radical technological change?
“I think it is really hard to evidence. I’d be very cautious of making big claims and promises and – present company excepted – we have been oversold to quite a bit by some suppliers in the market, which has created a trust issue for the technology profession,” said Mr Kitcat.
“I’m an optimist, but I’m not a technological determinist. I don’t believe technology makes outcomes. We make choices about what we want to achieve, and we then use the tools and methods to our benefit.”
Mr Golding asked whether it was a process of revolution or evolution. “Where should you start, which service should you prioritise? Or is it the mindsets that we need to challenge?”
“Yes, it is cultural and it is about people relationships,” said Mr Grice. “But I think there is stuff we can start, most definitely.
“Automation is a gamechanger for us, not because it is particularly sexy or new in many ways, but actually a lot of that processing stuff can be done in a different way. This then gives us capacity to make a saving from that or use that capacity in another way to do more of that high-value-added stuff.”
“It is almost inevitably going to be more evolution than revolution,” said Mr Grimes. “If you look at channels, the availability of things online, that was one of the big areas. I think you’re now seeing people wanting to fix infrastructure based on some really compelling offerings out there.”
’Digital’ as a word is a barrier – we’re ‘doing’ digital to you or you’re doing it to us. But what is the actual deliverable?
Lisa Beckett, Kingston upon Thames RBC and Sutton LBC
As the discussion wound down, Mr Golding asked panellists for their final thoughts, and what they felt was likely to happen over the next five years.
“For me, there is something around the nature of the organisation changing, and the way technology supports that, rather than technology being something out on its own,” said Mr Whitehouse. “That is to do with changing culture, upping skills, and bringing different people in. It is becoming more about the way we solve the big challenges that we have, rather than doing something tangential to them.”
Ms Lucas said: “It is about evolution as a democratic organisation. It is going to be slow. But I also throw in devolution as potentially an enabler of making it faster. Whilst I don’t think that has to detract from the ability of us to have great collective buying power and to share better, I think devolution would make that easier in some ways.”
“I think a lot of it comes down to brave leadership over the next few years: political, officer and at every level,” said Mr Grice. “A lot of it is moving us on, seizing the opportunity. I think everyone recognises we can’t carry on as we are.
“Therefore, it needs to look different and there needs to be some leadership cover to enable some of that thinking to happen. [It requires] people who can grab that opportunity by the scruff of the neck and move organisations through. It is also about skills and capability and people.”
Noting the political climate, Mr Grimes warned of “the impact of Brexit on decision-making, and the distraction of this”.
Mr Kitcat said: “As far as we can tell, Brexit or not, we are really up against the wall financially. Even if that wasn’t the case from a central government perspective, the demand and demographic issues mean that continuing to use a Victorian era model of organisations just is not sustainable.
“Perhaps something radical and revolutionary will need to happen in how we operate from the skills point of view, from the structural point of view, and I can only envisage that being technologically supported and enabled.
“Whether we become virtual organisations or we merge in all but name with public sector partners, sustainability is the crux of this all. We’re not just doing this for the hell of it, are we? We’re doing it because we’re trying to keep public services going in a meaningful way in our local areas.”
Ms Beckett called for councils to be “braver and [to create] more shared services, whether that’s across authorities or with the private sector”, adding that it was necessary for local authorities to build “meaningful relationships with suppliers that really work, which both the suppliers and local authorities really get something out of”.
“Changing procurement is absolutely key,” she said. “We cannot carry on the way we are, we can’t rely on doing things in the traditional procurement manner. And we need to keep in mind that the customer is the centre of what we do. We need to keep the focus on what we’re delivering for them, and not doing digital for digital’s sake, [and] that there is a purpose and an end.”
The final word was left to Mr Gough. “For me, it’s about going back to what we discussed at the beginning. Can the best citizen outcomes be achieved through radical technological change? I think the consensus is definitely. I think some very practical ways it could happen have been outlined today.
“There is an observation that some of the changes might not look revolutionary yet actually are pretty radical. For example, joining up different people’s data in order to get predictive stuff is radical for the public sector.”
He also put forward “the idea of central standards” or at least “everyone agreeing that they will ask for some of the same things”.
“Maybe what we’re looking at is a lot of little revolutions sounding evolutionary rather than one big revolution,” he said.
This roundtable discussion was sponsored by Agilisys. The topic was agreed by LGC and Agilisys. The report was commissioned and edited by LGC. See LGCplus.com/Guidelines for more information.
Going beyond the pilot to unlock real value
Andrew Gough, client services development director, Agilisys
The world is changing—and local government must change with it. Organisation models thought up last century are no longer sustainable amid the financial, workforce and demographic realities facing the public sector today.
Radical technological change offers hope. It’s no secret that digital innovation can transform citizen outcomes for the better, while substantially reducing costs. That’s why we’re now seeing a flurry of pilot programmes exploring the potential of new technologies.
Many local government pilots hint at huge promise: from helping people to continue living life independently by integrating internet of things (IoT) services into adult social care systems, to accelerating back office work through robotic process automation.
However, these programmes are also isolated. Each represents a unique island of innovation – making them costly and time-consuming to set up, harder to scale, lacking in interoperability and limited in their value for staff and citizens.
At a time when local government is struggling to close the digital skills gap, it’s also harder to assess the success of these pilot programmes. Without the ability to show a project’s outcomes and benefits clearly, is it any wonder local government is sometimes reluctant to risk investing in large-scale change?
The Local Digital Declaration points to a new way forward. Every local authority shouldn’t need to draw its own transformation map: most are on the same journey and need many of the same things. As the declaration says, “by developing common building blocks local authorities will be able to build services more quickly, flexibly and effectively”.
By agreeing standards and best practice centrally, organisations can follow proven paths to success, make savings through collective buying, simplify procurement and enjoy greater access to digital skills. Standards also allow more shared services, whether across authorities or with the private sector, allowing innovation to scale.
The key here isn’t one big revolution, but steady evolution built around a shared vision. Instead of pilots that reinvent the wheel each time, local government should invest in incremental change. The individual steps may be smaller, but they can have a huge impact over time, especially when rolled out across the country.
Now is the time for open discussion and new partnerships to make this a reality. Many in the private sector can already share tried and tested transformation methodologies that reliably deliver better citizen outcomes, and they’re ready to help. After all, abandoning islands of innovation starts with building bridges.