Flintshire County Council chief officers talk to Gill Hitchcock about their joint responsibilities for a five-year digitisation programme
Greenfield Dock, pictured here, is on the Flintshire coast Credit: Jeff Buck
It isn’t often local council digital chiefs get a public pat on the back from national government. But leadership at Flintshire County Council were praised in a Welsh Government report published in April on the digital progress of all 22 local authorities in Wales.
The recognition was chiefly down Digital Flintshire, the council’s ambitious strategy to improve services and systems over the next five years.
With no CIO, developing and delivering the strategy is the collective responsibility of a senior management team of nine and, according to Flintshire’s chief officer for governance Gareth Owens, this approach is significant in the council’s success.
“A lot of the ideas have been driven by particular services, such as HR, finance, and education services, which come forward with proposals,” he says. “IT too has a lot of ideas, because the staff have a background in lean thinking and they’ve been reviewing the council’s big systems.”
Mandy Humphreys, Flintshire’s IT business solutions manager, says the council also looks further afield for inspiration.
“Wigan is doing interesting work getting digital community champions addressing digital exclusion and offers some strong ideas for us,” she says.
“We have tried to tie in with GOV.UK’s Verify [identity assurance project] and join some of their pilots. We tried it with the blue badge pilot, but the legislation is slightly different in Wales, so we are waiting for some significant progress that we can tap into.”
A lot of the ideas have been driven by particular services, such as HR, finance, and education services, which come forward with proposals
Owens talks about Digital Flintshire’s “cohesive vision”, saying: “People understand that we have reduced our office base, systems and admin but, by having this single digital strategy covering every service in the council, you put a name to it and make it something that people can get behind.”
The strategy, published in March and commended by the Welsh Government for its accessibility, has six themes, each led by a middle manager. First, it sets out how local people will be enabled to access services and information online. Second, staff will be equipped to deliver “digital-first” services.
Third, Flintshire will encourage the development of an infrastructure to maximise opportunities that digital offers to businesses, communities and learning centres. Fourth, it will use digital technology to work in partnership across the wider public and private sectors. The fifth theme commits Flintshire to introducing new governance arrangements, including a dedicated project board, and the sixth promises better information management.
“I am leading the information management piece, that sits over it all,” says Humphreys. “Obviously, we are rationalising paper and digital information, reducing duplication and looking at how we can best use information to support creative decision making and channel our limited resources.”
Aled Griffith, the council’s IT infrastructure manager, will introduce a bring your own device programme.
“It’s in the plan for this year and part of a big consolidation piece around mobile device management,” he says. “We have a number of systems that we use to manage our mobile devices. We have one for iPads which are used by members and senior officers, and another solution for mobile devices used by housing operators to do repairs.”
Griffith adds: “Part of that project will also give us the technology to deliver BYOD, but in a secure way. One of the quick wins is going to be the delivery of email and calendars to personal phones, whereas now people have to carry a work and a personal phone.”
He says Flintshire has a cloud-first policy for business systems, and that will bring a migration to SharePoint across the council to enable greater visibility of information.
Flintshire has a challenging programme of channel shift over the next 12 months too, Humphreys says. She talks about the council’s CRM, which was developed in-house to give the council full control.
“We have had some successes in our street lighting service,” she says. “A member of the public can make a report on our website and it will go directly into our CRM, then into our back-office system, and result in a works ticket which is given via a mobile app to the operative. So, we are going to build on that and target other areas of customer services.”
Owens admits, however, that Flintshire has tended to focus on the needs of the digitally excluded to the detriment of those who want online services.
“In the private sector, it’s very much digital first, and that’s it,” he says. “We do have a responsibility to worry about the 10% who are digitally excluded and we have provided digital, alongside tradition services, rather than instead of. To some extent that has acted as a brake.”
Dealing with cuts
Like all local authorities, Flintshire has seen significant cuts to services and staff and is committed to saving a further £12m in the next financial year. Could lack of funding for Flintshire’s digital aims hinder its ambitions?
“There are 22 councils in Wales and we get the nineteenth lowest grant per head of population,” says Owens. “We are regarded as a relatively affluent county, but we have some pockets of deep deprivation and they don’t trigger extra money for us.”
Every manufacturer seems to be jumping on the back of the Brexit scenario and we have seen costs rise significantly for hardware and software
Owens says this has driven digital delivery because the council has had to modernise in order to manage. But he also says it is hard to make a link between digital and savings.
“For example, we are saving £1m a year by reducing our admin and the size of our admin staff,” he says. “We couldn’t tell you how much of that is just down to digital, but we know we couldn’t have done the admin reduction without digital. One of the issues we are struggling with is, how do you work out what the return on investment might be?”
The Welsh Government does provide some financial backing for local council digital initiatives, according to Humphreys. She cites Invest to Save funding for mobile working in Flintshire’s housing services.
But she adds: “Where there is funding available, it has been very limited. It has been upfront funding, and does not concentrate on how we are going to sustain that.”
Price hikes by IT suppliers are a particular concern for Griffith.
“Every manufacturer seems to be jumping on the back of the Brexit scenario and we have seen costs rise significantly for hardware and software,” he says. “Also, software vendors are going for a consumption-based model. Microsoft 365 is based per user, and the amount they consume. That is going to be a challenge for a local authority that has been used to relatively fixed costs.”
For Owens, Digital Flintshire is primarily about better services. He explains that the first priority is ensuring services are first streamlined and improved – or ‘leaned’, in manufacturing parlance.
“In Flintshire, we do not digitise something before we have leaned it,” he says. “Whether we do a full lean continuous improvement or not, we always make sure we improve systems, rather than try to replicate them digitally.
“We also make sure we involve the professionals – so you can’t buy any IT without going through Mandy or Alex.”