EXCLUSIVE: Rotherham council merges ICT and customer access in £7m digital strategy

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council has set out plans to bring all digital activity under one roof in a new digital strategy.

Rotherham Council has developed a £7m digital strategy – Photo credit: Rotherham Council

The strategy is set to start immediately and run until 2019 and brings together the council’s previously separate ICT and customer access strategies.

In an exclusive interview with PublicTechnology, Richard Copley, head of digital change at the council, said that ‘digital’ was so pervasive and underpinned so many services that it didn’t make sense to continue to keep the strategies separate.

In the past, Copley has been outspoken about councils fixating on creating a digital strategy document, arguing that what they really need is a “business strategy for a digital age” – something he still maintains is true.

“Top-down digital strategies don’t work,” he said. “You can’t foist technology on people and expect results.”

To ensure this was not the case, Copley said that Rotherham’s new strategy was co-produced with the various business units in the council, with the aim of pulling together all aspects of the council’s digital work.

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The strategy sets out a number of “golden rules” for digital, including ensuring that its systems and data are secure by design and that data can be used as a corporate resource. The strategy also emphasises that the default should be to buy ‘off the shelf’, rather than design and develop bespoke software in-house.

The council has budgeted for just under £7m of capital investment, spread over the next three years, and is planning to create a digital change team to help produced a detailed delivery plan and business plans for individual projects.

Copley said this team was effectively a small programme office that helps run the various projects that make up the digital strategy. Most of the team members – four project managers, a solutions architect, a business analyst, a project officer, test specialist and a business liaison officer – already work in similar roles and have been brought together in a new team.

“The idea is that the digital change team is there to facilitate – to help the business ‘do’ their projects,” said Copley.

“For the larger projects, we’re there for oversight and guidance but the heavy lifting will be done by the users and owners of the systems in question. These are, after all, business change and transformation projects –not IT projects – a message that we work hard to reinforce.”

He said that the model the council had chosen “means we will temporarily grow the project and technical teams, whether that is in the business, IT, or wherever the extra resource is needed” and that each project’s budget allows for this temporary growth in resources during the work.

Replacing legacy systems

The council’s strategy says that, during the lifetime of the strategy, around 30 of its larger software applications, services or licencing contracts will need to be upgraded or replaced.

Its costings for such replacement work include £1.6m for replacement of desktop devices, £1.2m to replace the contact centre system and £900,000 for networking equipment.

A further £358,000 will be spent on refreshing server estates and £300,000 on replacing storage infrastructure.

In addition, the council wants to upgrade YourAccount, its self-service system for citizens that has around 33,000 registered users, at a cost of £555,000. The council has also set aside a further £1.2m for other digital projects.

Other costs factored into the plans includes £300,000 for desktop productivity tools, with Copley saying that new versions of this kit – such as Word, Excel and Google’s Docs and Sheets – are giving councils more to think about.

“An interesting challenge that all organisations are now facing is that Google and Microsoft now mandate a subscription model for office productivity tools,” he said.

“For a large organisation with thousands of staff these tools are expensive to purchase – in the olden days we could capitalise these licenses as assets, but in the new world we have to find revenue budgets for this stuff – that’s going to be an interesting one to work through.”

Meanwhile, the strategy sets out plans to automate back-office processes to make them faster, more efficient and reduce the number of employees who need to be involved at each stage.

“Wherever possible, we want an end-to-end digital process so that requests are carried out automatically from first customer contact to completion of the transaction,” said Copley, adding that customers expected a similar experience from councils as they have with from private sector organisations.

When asked whether this meant the council would be making cuts to its workforce, Copley said that there was no getting away from headcount reductions across local government. But he stressed that automation could also enable employees to focus on more complicated areas of the business that technology can’t help with.

“One of the many benefits that come from automation is that it helps us to cope with budget cuts by allowing the workforce to focus on the more complex interactions whilst allowing the technology to handle those transactions that can be done automatically,” he said.

Another area covered by the strategy include joining up health and social care to improve services for citizens. Copley said that the council hoped that sharing data with NHS providers, and vice versa, would help it to gain insights that can be used to shape future services.

The council will also be using new tools such as assistive technologies, in a bid to improve its citizens’ quality of life and enable them to stay in their homes for as long as possible.

The strategy also reiterates the council’s intention of becoming a paperless organisation and commits to giving staff better access to data, technology and training, so they can improve services themselves.

However, Copley says that the immediate priority is to “become brilliant at the basics”.

“We will build upon things we’ve already achieved to deliver an excellent ICT infrastructure which is designed to support our transformation aspiration.”


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