Why Essex council has broken with digital convention

Jason Kitcat has got rid of digital strategies and teams and introduced in a single function devoted to service change. Gill Hitchcock finds out more.

Jason Kitcat has a radical approach to digital delivery in local government. At Essex county council, he has done away with digital strategies and digital teams – he thinks the word ‘digital’ is overused and meaningless, anyway – by integrating a range of disciplines into a single function focused on change.

“In my view, the culture, practice, tools and techniques of the internet age should be a mainstream part of how any organisation addresses its strategic objectives and challenges,” says Kitcat, who joined who joined Essex in 2017 as executive director of corporate development.

“Having a digital team or strategy, or innovation team, and all that stuff, essentially gets the rest of the organisation off the hook. It makes them think it’s not their job. Special people will deal with it. So my inclination was to mainstream it as much as possible.”

He has blogged about feeling fortunate that the council took a chance in appointing him, a recovering politician. In 2015 he stepped down from all his political activity, after three years as leader of Brighton and Hove city council. In previous roles, he has delivered NHS Citizen, which used online and offline ways to involve citizens in NHS England’s decision making. He was head of technology for Netmums, and general manager at the not-for profit Open Knowledge Foundation. 

Kitcat agrees that his department’s name – corporate development – is vague, but he is clear about the aims of its multi-disciplinary teams. 

The 50-strong service design team delivers user research, content and service design. With 180 staff, the technology service team runs an IT service desk, and major new systems by working with NHS and social care organisations on better integration. Meanwhile, the delivery team is responsible for programme and agile delivery management. The strategic insight team covers data analytics, strategy, communication and partnerships.

“Across those capabilities and professions, we believe we have what you need to work on reimagining local government services for the internet age,” says Kitcat. 

Over the past two years, corporate development has been building its in-house capabilities. The long-term goal is to create permanent in-house capacity across all capabilities. Recruiting the right talent can be hard, however, and Kitcat has needed some outside support, particularly from FutureGov, Nesta and Socitm Advisory. 

“Any organisation in the private or public sector needs to have sufficient in-house capability to own and lead its strategic intent, and technology is a core part of that,” he says. “You cannot be beholden to external forces for your core capabilities. We will obviously buy things in and use suppliers, but in a way that retains the agency, capability and strategic ownness in-house.”

Better working environments could help many public sector organisations to attract and retain the best staff, he thinks. It means they can compete with forward-thinking public sector organisations, such as the Government Digital Service, and the London offices of “tech-centred darlings” like Google and Facebook. 

“For us, we need to be credible in terms of working environment,” he says. “We think we have interesting work to do. We have a great culture. And we’re very happy for people to come and do a tour of duty. If they are going to do three or four years and then go back to the private sector, I am cool with that. I think that it’s good for them and it’s good for us.”

Rather than seeing technology as a financial liability or adjunct, he anthropomorphises: it’s a “core colleague”. He does, however, see tech-enabled initiatives to achieve efficiencies and savings over time, mostly because better interaction with residents will reduce their need for repeated contacts. 

“Those savings are hard to put a ribbon around, tie a bow and go ‘this much’. But we know that, over time, citizen behaviour will change and demand will reduce,” he says.

Blazing a trail
One trailblazing Essex project is underway in collaboration with Stockport council. Kitcat’s department is using source code created by Stockport to create a new single platform, Essex.gov.uk. A beta site is expected to get its public launch later this year. And if Kitcat get it right, the platform will enable joined-up access to county and district councils, as well as primary and secondary NHS services.

Another development is an app-based approach to speeding up hospital discharge. The idea is to end the time-consuming and frustrating experience of patients having to repeatedly explain their conditions and circumstances to different health and care professionals. With all that information stored using a single app, it could enable the right support to be put in place and people to leave hospital earlier.

Business and financial planning are changing too. The starting points are no longer deadline and budget, but outcomes, followed by resources – with technology at the centre. 

Kitcat explains: “By innovating on our approach to business and finance planning, we can get better insight into how we can use technology, service design and analytics to create better services. It’s really hard to do that when you’re in a rush to hit your six-month budget target.

“We think we have interesting work to do. We have a great culture. And we’re very happy for people to come and do a tour of duty. If they are going to do three or four years and then go back to the private sector, I am cool with that. I think that it’s good for them and it’s good for us.”

“The first three months is the discovery phase where look at data about what our services are achieving. Then we try and build from that and look at the change programme we have. I very mindfully use ‘change’ rather than ‘transformation’. Change is never ending, whereas transformation is like a butterfly – it’s done once.”

Kitcat, a long-time activist with the Open Right Group, a grassroots, digital campaigning organisation to protect the rights to privacy and free speech online, is keen for more use of open data and open-source software. Local government has yet to benefitted fully from these, he believes. 

He laments the UK’s fragmented system of public services and recognises that open data, data sharing and data platforms are routes to overcoming structural challenges to joined-up services.

While he can’t predict what his department will have achieved in five years’ time, he says: “I hope we will have some core building blocks, common components, that we share with other parts of local government. It will mean we can reduce some of the duplicational waste as suppliers continue to pickpocket us for the same thing over and over again.”

Sam Trendall

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