Around 18 months ago, senior leaders at Wigan Council decided to take digital seriously. Since then the authority has won multiple awards for its transformation. Rebecca Hill asks Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive director for customer transformation, about the journey.
The Wigan Council team accepting the Digital Leaders council of the year award – Photo credit: Digital Leaders
“It’s not about technology, it’s about changing people’s lives.” Alison McKenzie-Folan’s words may be a familiar phrase to those working to transform local government services for a digital age, but they bear repeating.
The deputy chief executive director for customer transformation at Wigan Council is clearly a champion of the power of digital to improve people’s lives.
“It’s about encouraging people to become more self-reliant, and that’s really important from a public servant’s perspective. We know we’ve got so much money to save, and the demands on public services are really high,” she says. “The only way to do that is a shift in mindset, and digital and tech gives you the support and enables you to get that shift in mindset.”
Wigan had been dabbling in digital for some time, with work to help community groups become more confident online, European funding to push out broadband and improvements to the council’s website to allow people to transact with it online.
But most of the initiatives were separate from each other and the team wanted to create an overall digital strategy, which McKenzie-Folan says was created in collaboration with businesses and community in the region. “And at that point we got political buy in,” she says, with the cabinet putting some money behind the drive in March 2015.
And it wasn’t long before the fruits of the local authority’s efforts began to show. The council won the charity Go ON UK’s North-west partnership award in autumn 2015, followed by the Local Government Chronicle award for digital council of the year and, earlier this year, the same award from the Digital Leaders initiative, which promotes best practice in digital transformation.
Tenacity and investment
McKenzie-Folan says the council’s success started when it got senior level buy-in. So how were Wigan’s leaders convinced?
“I think a bit of tenacity and pushing from individuals – me being one of them,” McKenzie-Folan says.
“My advice to others is to have a strong narrative. It’s about telling the story of your ambition, and putting it in context – we aligned it to our corporate strategy, for instance. You need to link the stories together. If you just see it as a bolt-on you’ll never get the buy-in.”
She adds that developments in the wider region were also a helpful push, with increased collaboration across the Greater Manchester region as well as devolution topping the local agenda. “We looked at the opportunities being presented and thought about how we could take advantage of being part of a super-connected city region,” McKenzie-Folan says. “I think that was really just saying ‘we need to do something bigger, better and have bolder ambitions’.”
At the same time, the council is beefing up its own IT systems and technologies, as well as recruiting more staff, with five or six posts having been created around digital innovation.
“We’ve put resources into various pieces of work, where we have to pump-prime teams or ideas,” she says.
This includes people working on data analytics, for instance looking at how to apply resources differently and more strategically. “For example, we’re looking at the highest demand on public services by working with the NHS. We came up with 10 or 12 factors to identify a population of people we know will have the highest incidences of going into A&E and outpatient departments. Using that, we’ve reorganised our integrated neighbourhood teams around those individuals.”
But it’s clear that Wigan isn’t resting on its laurels. When asked to identify the biggest challenge the council is facing, McKenzie-Folan says keeping up with the speed of developments can be tough.
“The world is moving at such a fast pace in terms of tech,” she says, reeling off a list of areas where there could be potential for councils, from the Internet of Things to open data. “So although we’ve set a strategy, we’ve been doing a bit of navel-gazing. One of the things you wrestle with a bit is making sure you prioritise where you’ll make the most progress.”
McKenzie-Folan says it’s likely the council will refresh its strategy in March, by which time it will have been in place for two years and due for assessment. Meanwhile, she says that the senior management team recently spent half a day discussing the council’s internal tech and digital agenda, asking how it could “recalibrate itself”.
“We’re building up a new programme around digital reform, articulated on a more internal perspective – where we are as a council and where we’d like to be in 2020 and 2025,” she says.
In addition, the council wants Wigan to be a destination for people working in the digital tech sector, and is working to boost tech skills in schools, as well as pushing to ensure digital is part of the reforms to health and social care.
“It’s about promoting a digital ecosystem,” McKenzie-Folan says of the council’s wide-ranging plans. “You need to get your head around the idea that digital can be at the heart of everything you do.”