Durham council puts democracy into digital design

Designing a strategy to take digital take-up over the 50% mark means getting to the heart of what the county’s residents really want. Gill Hitchcock writes.

Durham Castle and Cathedral sit on the banks of the river Wear   Credit: Jungpionier/CC BY-SA 3.0

“We can’t run away with technology dictating how we deliver the services,” says Durham County Council’s head of digital and customer services, Alan Patrickson. “It’s important for us to make sure that residents really help us design how our services are best delivered for them.”

So far, more than 100 of Durham’s services are available online. Between 40-50% of local residents access its services electronically. Over the last three years, the percentage has risen rapidly – principally for those using environmental services.

To plan further digital developments, Durham conducted a four-month consultation with residents which concluded this spring. It focused on three main areas: better access to services via digital technology; how the council can be more responsive to the needs of the people it serves; and how it can help people to access and use new digital technologies.

The Local Government Association describes communicating with residents as an important council responsibility. The organisation, which seeks to promote better local government, says that it is important that councils understand not only how residents consume information, but also how they would like to.

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It has found that, if residents feel informed and engaged by their council, it directly affects their views about the council and the services they receive. This in turn impacts on their levels of satisfaction and ultimately, a council’s public reputation. 

Conducting a residents’ survey provides an opportunity to understand what a community thinks, it advises. It also helps the council to demonstrate its transparency and accountability to the people it serves.

Patrickson thinks back to a time when the only feedback from residents was through the complaints process, or a compliment about a member of staff who had done something particularly well.

Technology, however, has given the council a mechanism to enable residents to offer feedback on every single transaction that they make. As a result, Durham already has a large body of data that it uses on a daily basis to make services and communication channels better.

In the circumstances, perhaps Patrickson had not expected the consultation to produce any major surprises. If so, he would have been right. “There was nothing that made us do a 90-degree turn on anything that we are doing,” he says. “In many ways this is reassuring.”

What he has gleaned is that residents like the council’s digital direction of travel. They like using online channels, not only to make their requests, but to receive updates on how things are progressing. And they are increasingly using mobile devices to access a range of services. Durham needs to keep up with that. 

But what about people who are not online? Addressing digital exclusion is one of the great social challenges of our age, according to the Carnegie UK Trust. 

Douglas White, the charity’s head of advocacy, predicts that as public services fully embrace digital disruption, the internet of things will become the norm for many of us, and augmented reality will soon begin to roll out more much widely. 

“As this is happening, the gap between those who are digitally engaged and those who are not is quickly threatening to become a chasm,” White warns.

Patrickson says the consultation was available on paper at public libraries and at council customer access points – as well as online – and many people submitted their responses on paper.

“An important part of the feedback was that we need to bridge the digital divide, and not leave people behind, or make services harder to access for those who may not be as comfortable with using digital methods,” he says.

“And that has certainly been our strategy to date. Our ‘customer first strategy’ has been to use digital tools to expand choice, not to restrict it. We have never turned off a channel and said ‘this service is only available online’.”

However, Patrickson says the consultation was intended to get the best out of digital technology. The council’s commitment to digital delivery is highlighted in its signing up to the government’s Local Digital Declaration. This was in late 2018, when Durham joined a number of other local authorities and public sector organisations in pledging to work together to improve digital services for citizens. The declaration was an initiative promoted by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Government Digital Service.

Broadband boost
Then there is Digital Durham. This is a £35m programme, led by the council, to transform broadband speeds for residents and businesses across the north-east of England.

In June 2016, the first phase of the programme saw more than 105,000 properties having access to fibre broadband. Phase two expects to give a further 27,000 homes and businesses access to fast, fibre-based broadband.

Having delivered a sizeable £209m of savings by the end of 2017/18, Durham needs to save a further £43m by 2021/22. Meanwhile, it is focusing on protecting frontline services and is prioritising back-office efficiencies and reducing management. 

“We need to bridge the digital divide, and not leave people behind, or make services harder to access for those who may not be as comfortable with using digital methods – and that has certainly been our strategy to date.”
Alan Patrickson, Durham County Council

Does Patrickson see himself as a protector of frontline services? “That sounds rather grand,” he says. “I think an enabler might be better. My role, that of the digital team and certainly the customer service team, is to really support the frontline services. If we have new technology that they can use to make their lives easier, more efficient and they can deliver services better, that is very much our role.”

He says the first draft of the new strategy reached his desk this week. The aim is that it will be published this summer. 

In the future, the success of the strategy will mean the county is digitally connected across its range of geographies, economies and different residential groups. And Patrickson will have overcome the challenge of getting communities and small business in remote rural areas using digital tools and techniques.

“Of course, it will be public facing,” he says. “So, we have some wordsmithing to do to make sure we take our technical jargon out.”


Sam Trendall

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