The council’s new head of digital and transformation talks to Gill Hitchcock about expanding online self-service and the potential of AI
Credit: Matt Davis/CC BY 2.0
Simon Jones joined Crawley council this July as head of digital and transformation at a time of major change for the West Sussex borough.
“Everyone has been squashed into a mid-century building that’s showing its age, and they are going to knock it down and build a new town hall,” he says. “There is a huge programme under way.”
After approval by Crawley’s planning committee in June, the programme will develop a nine-storey building to house commercial office space and new accommodation for the council. If all goes well, it will be completed in 2020.
“If I have one ambition, in the medium term, it is to successfully enable the organisation to move into a brand-new building with all the right technology, processes and enablers in place to maximise the opportunity that provides,” says Jones.
His role is new and, as the council’s most senior digital leader, Jones’ remit is to put Crawley at the forefront of technological developments to drive service improvement and efficiency.
Days into the job, and Jones is impressed by Crawley’s existing digital achievements. For instance, the council’s reception area has floor walkers equipped with mobile devices. They meet and greet residents and, if they cannot deal with an enquiry themselves, direct people to the right service.
“This is contemporary,” says Jones. “It’s up there with your banks and slick operations.”
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The is also, MyCrawley, an online self-service portal for residents to access information and services. Launched in July, it enables people to access personalised online forms and real-time information about waste and recycling. They can view and pay their council tax bills via the portal, which was developed by Firmstep and is linked to CRM, workflow tools and an internal service dashboard.
“It’s not good if can go online for banking, shopping and booking holidays, but if you if want to pay your council tax your have got to get off your bottom and go down to an office,” he says.
“We need to keep pace with the rest of the world and the portal is doing just that. But it is a first step. There are a number of services that are already available and those will increase over time.”
Jones cautions, however, that channel shift can never be 100% because there will always be a need for face-to-face engagement.
“There are people who don’t have digital technology or may not be able to use it, and that is a separate conversation, another strand of work that we are doing.”
Outside of council tax, street lighting, pot holes, noise and refuse collection, about 80% of people have almost no interaction with their council, according to Jones. But he believes that personalisation is key to greater engagement.
“A local authority provides a set of services, but our residents may well be in receipt of other services,” he says. “I can see a future where a portal, be it an NHS or local authority portal, is a place where people can go in and see, not just the services from the local authority, but appointments with the dentist or doctor.”
Jones adds: “We exist in lots of places, and being able to access and manage your own information is really powerful. It allows you to organise your life more effectively. But it also allows health and local government services to see where people are known elsewhere, and that there might be synergies or issues we need to be aware of.”
Ministry of Truth
Does this sound a bit like George Orwell’s ever-watchful Big Brother? Jones thinks it might, but says that UK government has some of world’s most stringent data protection.
“I am not sure what people think government is capable of. In most cases it’s about making sure people are safe. If someone is known to one part of the economy, and a system flags that they have turned up in another part of the economy and that they might be at risk, this is safeguarding. It can really pay dividends, particularly for children.”
Crawley, like other local authorities, is coping with cuts in funding and increasing demand for services. Its revenue support from central government dropped by over 44.5% this financial year compared to 2015. Next year it will be down by nearly 90%.
Meanwhile, councils are spending an increasing proportion of their total budgets on social care. ADASS, the association of directors of adult social services in England, says that, on average, councils will spend almost 38% of their budget on social care this year.
At Crawley, Jones has to deliver efficiencies. He says that digital itself does not deliver savings “in a traditional sense”, but enables an organisation to structure itself in more efficient ways.
“You might be able to reduce a transaction cost. If you have 50 people on phones and move a good chunk of those calls to online, you need fewer people. So, the saving is people, the enabler is digital – but it only works if take up is right, and you need to revise your processes to take advantage of that. Also, you may not want to remove 25 people from your contact centre, but to expand the services they offer. There are options.”
Ahead of Jones’ arrival, the council had been looking to introduce machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of services.
He says AI is the “flavour of the moment” and that local government has to be careful in choosing how to use it.
“Remember that we start with a fixed amount of money and have to squeeze as much service out of it as we can. Certainly, AI can help with the big data stuff, [such as] being able to spot trends in populations. For example, you could use AI to find a correlation between people who have certain issues, who live in a particular area, [and] who are over a certain age, and that can allow you to look at information and put in place plans to help mitigate problems.”
Jones has considerable experience of overseeing transformation programmes, most recently with the East Sussex Better Together, a partnership of clinical commissioning groups, NHS trusts ,and the local authority, aimed at integrating health and social care.
It was an incredibly complex programme he says. Designing a strategy to meet the requirements of five key stakeholders, plus a range of associated organisations, was difficult.
Now he is getting to grips with a new set of challenges in a single organisation which delivers a wide range of services.
“I have got to learn a different business,” he says. “But on the whole, the biggest challenge is going to be driving change through and ensuring that technology is adopted in the right ways.”