Rob Miller discusses how using technology can help offset funding cuts, and why local government should work like an open-source community
Hackney Town Hall is on Mare Street, close to the council’s headquarters in the heart of the borough Credit: PA
Rob Miller is in urgent need of a new source of electricity.
Minutes before PublicTechnology arrives to talk to Hackney Council’s director of ICT, the main plug socket in his office explodes, leaving him – in a literal sense, at least – powerless.
For most people, a temporary loss of electricity might be a bit of inconvenience. For someone in charge of delivering digital services to more than a quarter of a million people, it is perhaps a more pressing concern. Albeit one in which he sees the irony.
And such prosaic obstacles will do little to stop Miller’s work to make Hackney a digital leader in the local government space. The key to which, he says, is actually to avoid pursuing a digital strategy at all.
- Interview: Hackney’s Matthew Cain on changing councils, chatbots and local government Verify
- Hackney aims to reduce cyclist accidents with driver-warning system
- Hackney to develop pre-school language mobile app
“There has been a change in the way in which we do our work,” Miller says. “Typically, you would create an IT strategy, or a digital strategy for something and say ‘we will do ABC’ [to make it work].”
He adds: “Instead, we want to have a service strategy. The way that things we are working on get prioritised [is that] we work together with the director or the senior manager whose service is impacted, and it is about shaping it together – rather than it being an IT project.
“One of the things we are looking at is the degree to which our digital services can be designed around users.”
Examples of this user-focused approach include a recent redesign of the digital service for tenants of council properties, during which Miller and his colleagues retained a research company to survey residents about their biggest gripes with the existing service. The findings uncovered that, while the council had always preferred people to pay via direct debit, tenants tended to favour standing orders. This meant the service could be designed to better accommodate citizens’ wishes.
Hackney’s six-pronged strategy for creating excellent IT services
- Enabling digital services design
- Providing flexible tools for work
- Using information as an asset
- Robust and reliable technology procurement
- Developing the ICT service
“While we are iterating stuff, I am happy to show it to residents,” Miller says. “What we are trying to do is get away from of the practice of ‘it’s not perfect, therefore let’s not make it available to people’.“
Another success story is a service for delivering parking permits virtually, rather than the previous system of residents having to apply for physical documents which were then posted to them.
“When you go and request a parking permit, we have the resources so that we can use our information and our systems to verify you,” Miller says. “We are putting a really strong focus on data, which has saved us hundreds of thousands of pounds.”
Making optimal use of citizen data to create efficient and effective services is of particular importance at a time when councils across the country are facing continued funding cuts, the Hackney ICT chief says.
“We still have a lot of central-government cuts on local authorities,” he adds. “We want to use data to inform better policy, to ensure the funding and service decisions can get smarter, and we are minimising the impact on citizens.”
There are councils who commercialise their services and sell them to other councils – but the rewards of that seem very slim; the rewards are a lot more if we work with one another
To ensure the borough is collating data in the most effective way, Miller and his team are exploring the use of business intelligence and analytics tools. Another key strand of the council’s data strategy is being as open as possible with residents.
“If we gave people more ability to see how we are using their information, they might be more comfortable with it,” he says.
An open goal
Other than using some external datacentre space, Hackney owns and manages all its technology in house – including a small team of software developers to build digital platforms and services. The council even considered implementing its own “local GDS”, to set strategy and best practice.
“There was a discussion, but I felt very strongly that that was the wrong thing to do,” Miller says. “We would end up spend a long time defining a single digital service, rather than creating it.”
He explains that he would rather encourage the local government digital sector – as a whole – to operate as an open source-style community, that works openly and co-operatively for the common good.
A borough in numbers
Hackney’s population as of July 2017
Languages spoken, with one in four residents speaking a language other than English as their primary language
14,358 per sq km
Population density, making Hackney the UK’s third-most densely populated district, behind only neighbouring boroughs Islington and Tower Hamlets
Amount of population aged under 30, about 6.5 percentage points higher than the UK-wide figure
1 April 1965
Date on which the modern-day borough came into existence, via the merger of the previous Metropolitan Boroughs of Hackney, Shoreditch, and Stoke Newington
Source: Hackney.gov.uk and ONS
“There are councils who commercialise their services and sell them to other councils. But the commercial rewards of that seem very slim,” Miller says. “I think the rewards are a lot more if we work with one another, and learn from each other, and our successes and mistakes. I think if we look at Linux and take that way of working and apply it to local government, we can all benefit.”
In addition to developing and delivering digital services for citizens, the other key strand of the ICT leader’s remit is ensuring the borough’s own workforce is furnished with the technology and environment to work effectively and flexibly. Enabling the use of mobile devices and remote-working practices could play a role in making the council an attractive workplace for young people with an interest in working in the public-service field, Miller says.
“If we can equip you to do your work, then you can spend as much time as possible delivering public services,” he adds. “That is coupled with being in a borough like Hackney, where stuff is happening, and with a track record of success – last year the Local Government Chronicle Awards named us the best council of the last 20 years.
“It is an exciting place to be.”