Chatbots, free WiFi, and paperless councillors – Waltham Forest’s digital transformation

Executive and political leadership at the east London council talk to PublicTechnology about their work to lead transformation in a way that benefits the entire borough 

Walthamstow Town Hall is one of the borough’s most iconic buildings  Credit: Julian Osley/CC BY-SA 2.0

“When you deliver something, you think it is a good idea. But, when you test it with real people – you find out if it really is,” says Paul Neville, director of digital and ICT at Waltham Forest Council.

Neville is discussing the east London borough’s recent creation of a citizen panel, which contains 80 local people who test and provide feedback on digital services in development. Issues addressed by the members of the panel are likely to include details such as “the positioning of a button on a page – what works best, and what is intuitive”. 

Neville adds: “It is one of a number of things we are doing to be much more customer focused.”

The initiative is the latest step in a digital-transformation journey that was already underway when Neville joined the council in October 2016. Progress so far has taken the borough to the point where, during July, 74.9% of the authority’s 21,022 service transactions throughout the month were conducted digitally.

“Almost all our services are now digitally served,” Neville says. “And we are thinking not just about the front-end service, but more and more we are thinking about how can we ensure the end-to-end service is digitally enabled.”

He adds: “Council tax has been a massive driver for channel shift… we have put in a very complex set of capabilities in terms of the ability to manage your council tax, request special rates – council tax is quite a complex service, so we have put all of that online. That has really been taken up very significantly.”

In my role I also think about what does digital mean – not only for us as a council – but for the borough as a whole
Paul Neville, director of digital and ICT

Also helping to ensure uptake of digital services has been another citizen-centric initiative – the recruitment of “digital champions”. Most of these responded to recruitment campaigns in the borough’s libraries, through which they volunteered to help others who lack awareness or confidence with digital technologies. 

Councillor Liaquat Ali, portfolio lead member for transformation and commercial operations, says: “Not everybody will feel that they want to use technology, which is why we have also appointed digital champions. We have a wide variety of people doing that – different ages, different groups, different ethnicities. So that people can become confident on technology.”

Digital transformation is not just taking place for frontline services. Following elections earlier this year, councillor Ali and the 59 other elected officials in the borough were all equipped tablets to enable paper-free council meetings.

“Already we have started saving money on by abolishing printing of the big committee agendas, and the cabinet agendas,” he says. “We still have to do it for the public, to make it accessible for them. But the reduction in printing [internally] is already a massive contribution.”

Some like it bot
Having created online tools and transactional services for more or less its entire service portfolio, Waltham Forest is now moving into other forms of digital delivery. The council has launched automated chatbots on Twitter and Facebook through which citizens can report environmental incidents such as fly-tipping, dog fouling, and dirty front gardens.

Launching tools such as these has not just been about being “clever on the front end”, Neville says, but also taking the opportunity to tune up its back-end processes and systems.

“The contractors that will go and pick up the fly tip now have a tablet… whereas they used to get their jobs in the morning on a piece of paper, and bring that back the following evening,” the digital chief adds. “Now, when they have finished a job, they tick it off [on the tablet] and – because we have integrated that process into our back-end systems – that then pushes a notification through our systems that, if a user has reported via Facebook messenger Twitter, will go direct to their phone. It’s really neat.”

Neville characterises the – comparatively low-key – rollouts of the chatbots as “proof of concepts”.

“We know that it is a continual process of learning and understanding feedback from residents and improving that online service even more, and thinking about how we talk to our residents,” he says. “What we are checking and testing is whether a website is old hat, and do we need to be where our customers – our residents and businesses – are? And where they are, most of the time, is on social media – more than on a website. So, the question for us is: is that a better place – or another place – for us to interact with them?”

He adds: “My sense is that it is a different channel, [rather than a better one]. But our feedback has been very positive, and we are seeing a good uptake as more and residents learn about it.”

During July, a quarter of the 1,059 fly-tipping reports filed by Waltham Forest residents were made using the bots. In total, 83% of reports came via digital channels.

The creation of the bot also prompted designers to radically streamline the number of questions citizens are required to answer in order to file a report. There are now just four key pieces of information they are asked to provide – compared with as many as 20 when using previous paper or online forms.

This redesign was not simply a programme of work for Neville’s digital team, but was enthusiastically supported and contributed to by operational delivery professionals.

“This has been a real strength of the project,” he says “The strategic director for neighbourhoods was the senior responsible officer… for the project, and was really, really dedicated to getting down [that number] of questions – it was a real bugbear of hers. It could not have been done so well without really good partnership working across the council.”

Neville adds: “The other point is we have got more data about that service than ever before now. We are now looking at that data and it is helping us improve the service itself.”

Optimising opt-ins
With the General Data Protection Regulation coming into force earlier this year, the storage and use of citizen data has been a key focus area for many public sector organisations in recent months.

Rather than a binary opt-in or opt-out choice, Waltham Forest used GDPR as a prompt to give citizens with an online account more detailed options to tailor the information they receive from the council. 

“We want to make sure that we use data better,” councillor Ali says. “Now GDPR is in, that has helped us, because we want to make sure that those people that really want to [are able to] opt in to our services [that] they really want to use.”

Percentage of Waltham Forest’s 21,022 service transactions during July that were conducted digitally

Month during which the council runs its annual Digital Month

Number of local residents that form the citizen panel, which tests and provides feedback on services in development

Approximate population of the borough

One in four
Amount of fly-tipping reports filed during July that were made using the new chatbot service

Neville adds: “We gave [people] a much richer set of options in regards to what they wanted to find out, and what they wanted to be kept in touch with. And we had a really high percentage of opt-ins, compared to what I would expect to be an industry average from previous experiences. And it enables us to have much more personalised and richer conversations with our residents – we know what they are interested in, and we can then serve that interest – which is just really, really helpful. We have an insight team that look at data and try to understand trends in our borough, and we are trialling some new technology to help us better understand some of those trends.”

Alongside the core council services, Waltham Forest has also created a ServiceStore, through which local residents can acquire commercial services to be delivered by council employees or approved contractors. This includes services such as pest control, gardening, house clearances, and general handyman duties.

Neville explains that the ServiceStore was created and launched using the same kind of development – and commercial – techniques that would be used for a comparable project in the private sector.

“That was really our first truly commercial website it has been a really interesting learning experience for us,” Neville says. “It was probably one of the first agile projects we delivered – which was an enormous challenge, from a cultural perspective: not knowing exactly what we were going to end up with, but having a fixed budget and then trying to keep to that.”

He adds: “We launched with a beta site that was very basic, so we did it right. We tried proper digital marketing techniques, and paid for proper advertising SEO, and business SEO – all that kind of stuff that hadn’t really been done here before. We are still working on it, and trying to improve it, and to learn and take that kind of experience into some of the other projects that we have done.”

One such project was the launch of a website for Walthamstow Wetlands – a local 211-hectare nature reserve which opened to the public for the first time in October 2017. The website contains information on the history of the wetlands and guides to help individuals and schools plan their trip.

It also explains how citizens or businesses can support the wetlands via sponsorship or volunteering, as well as details of what venues can be hired for weddings or other events. 

The site has helped attract people to the wetlands, according to Neville.

“We are seeing a huge amount of visitors to the website, which is going hand in hand with visitors to the actual site,” he says.

‘This is where real stuff actually happens’
Earlier this year, the council trialled the use of free public WiFi in Walthamstow town centre. Working alongside telecoms firm Arqiva, this programme has now been fully implemented across eight further centres of commerce in Walthamstow and the borough’s other towns: Leyton; Leytonstone; Chingford; and Highams Park.

“This will boost the local economy and the shopping areas that we have got here in Waltham Forest, and bring in more income into the borough,” councillor Ali says.

Working with local tech businesses is also one of the key features of the dedicated “Digital Month” that the council has run throughout November in each of the last two years – and will do so again in 2018.

We have appointed digital champions, and we have a wide variety of people doing that – different ages, different groups, different ethnicities – so that people can become confident on technology
Councillor Liaquat Ali

Last year’s Digital Month included initiatives such as a hackathon, the creation of a digital cultural map of the borough, an anti-cyber bullying initiative with local schools, and work with jobcentres to teach digital skills to people who were out of work.

“Digital was a programme, it is now an operation,” Neville says. “In my role I also think about what does digital mean – not only for us as a council – but for the borough as a whole.”

The Waltham Forest digital chief arrived in local government having spent most of his career in the telecoms industry. More recently, he spent two years working in transformation-focused roles for cancer charities Marie Curie and, latterly, Macmillan. 

Having spent much of his professional life dedicated to ensuring “people buy the best TV package, and spend the most they could on broadband”, the experience of using digital to help good causes was a revelatory one, he says.

“And suddenly these skills that I have [developed] doing all this commercial stuff had another use, and were totally transferable, and were helping real people,” he says. “I started to learn more about this sector and to think about it, and I realised actually this is the place – this is the next big place for digital transformation: local government.”

Neville adds: “This is where, when people step out of their front doors – we are the people that look after them, we are the people that sweep up their streets. This is where real stuff actually happens and, if you like digital transformation, this is the place to do it.”

Sam Trendall

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