Canterbury raises its barriers to digital delivery

Peter Davies, Canterbury City Council’s head of digital transformation, talks to Gill Hitchcock about cloud, SaaS, big data, and delivering 85% of services digitally by 2019

By adopting more digital services, Canterbury City Council hopes to save £1m over the next three years  Credit: PA

Canterbury City Council is raising its barriers – and it’s starting with parking. No, that won’t mean the end of the mad dash under the electronic arm at the entrance to one of the city-centre car parks. It should, however, mean a much smoother ride for motorists who need a ticket or permit for on- and off-street parking.

It’s part of the city council’s journey to boost take-up of its online services. And the destination is that, by 2019, 85% of transactional services will be electronic.

Peter Davies, Canterbury’s head of digital transformation, says that the council currently provides 65-70% of its services online. “The general trend is upward, but we are looking for a step change and moving people from physical, manual transactions into complete self-service online,” he says.

To achieve this, the council is heading first for a shake up of parking services, council tax payments and simple stuff, like registering a change of address.

“There are so many barriers that we put in the way,” says Davies. “A good example is parking permits where it’s quicker to come to the council, talk to the person at the desk who will fill in all the details, and then walk away with the permit. 

“If you did it yourself online, you’d to wait up to two weeks to get the physical parking permit sent through.

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“And we currently ask people for information, like ‘what is your council tax number?’, that nobody in their right mind would be able to pull out of a hat.”

To get a good feel for what residents thought of ticketless parking, Canterbury spoke to just under 200 people face-to-face to and another 2,300 online. 

“More than 90% of people asked ‘why ever aren’t you doing this now?’,” says Davies.

In response, the council is a reviewing its entire parking service and – no doubt locals will be delighted – later this year it will deliver a simplified online system for residents’ and visitors’ street parking permits.

“The resident will be able to manage their own visitors online rather than having to run about at the last minute going ‘oh, so and so is coming to visit me, what do I do?!’, and buying these bizarre little scratch cards, which is what we use now,” says Davies.

A ticketless system for car parks is coming and Davies promises that residents will have online accounts and never have to go near a parking machine again.

And he says that if enforcement teams aren’t working to monitor car parks, they can deal with the enforcement issues that residents and politicians want tackling. Unauthorised parking at school gates, fly tipping, dog fouling and litter are big concerns.

Canterbury’s online drive is part of its plan to save money too. 

Davies’ digital team has a target to save £1m over the next three years – a fifth of the council’s overall savings by 2020 – which has meant going “root and branch” through every system to understand how and why it is used.

“We have able to take out a whole bunch of systems over the last year and looking to save about £200,000 just by simplifying the number of systems that we have got,” says Davies.

“We have been looking at planning. Currently, we use Idox as our planning system, but we have been able to align that with what our property services use – a Capita-based system.

He adds: “And we have been able to review what some of our environment health and housing teams use… and bring them into one system. Where possible, we are moving into a cloud-hosted environment supported by the supplier. It means we have the most up-to-date software and we are not waiting for vendors to link in with us to make critical updates that might take four weeks.”

There are benefits for residents too, who are able to find a range of information – perhaps about property, street furniture, or waste disposal – in one place.

Supply and demand
The council’s investment in all this, about £100,000 so far, will be paid for through savings on the costs of supporting disparate systems. Davies explains that over the next year the corporate responsibility for Canterbury’s systems will shift from individual services to a “single ownership team”.

And the cost of the day-to-day in-house management of software will switch to the supplier as Canterbury increases its adoption of software-as-a-service. 

Davies believes that using off-the-shelf systems, rather than bespoke, is cheaper and more reliable, saying: “if that product isn’t the best that supplier can make, they will be losing market share.”

Asked about Canterbury’s suppliers, he says: “We are in discussions with some suppliers at the moment, but Idox will be one of our largest suppliers for the spatial element. Jadu is another we have signed up for the website and the customer account side of things.”

Big data is on the horizon too. He predicts that the council is going to produce rich information and, by working with computer science and business analysis teams at local universities, as well as with neighbouring county councils, Canterbury can start forecasting future service needs with much greater accuracy.

“We are at the beginning of the big-data journey,” he says. “And we are starting to work on how we can build big-data labs and how we push data out so that it is accessible to the right communities who can do those data hacks and number crunches, so they can say ‘this is where your future issues will be if you don’t address x, y and z’.”

We are starting to work on how we can build big-data labs and how we push data out so that it is accessible to the right communities 

The council’s 2015-2020 corporate plan sets out a determination to challenge the status quo and get the best value for money for taxpayers, invest in the infrastructure its district needs, and tackle the social and economic issues that are important to citizens.

Davies, who has been in post for 12 months, is not a former IT chief or CIO. But his background in change management and business improvement, plus his openness to new opportunities will be key to bringing down those barriers. 

He says: “For me, this is about business transformation with a digital influence.”

Sam Trendall

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