With ambitious plans for digital infrastructure, online services, and cloud migration, one local authority has a busy year ahead. Gill Hitchcock reports.
Every January feels like a new beginning, but for North Lanarkshire council it really could be. If all goes to plan, during 2020 the Scottish authority’s ambitions to digitise all its services will turn into reality.
With New Year festivities barely over, the council is hosting a different type of event. On 17 January, it will greet digital network providers for an ‘engagement day’. It wants to tell them of its ambitions to create a world-class digital infrastructure, connectivity services and digital communications. By summer, it expects to tender.
“We are looking to tempt your Virgins, your OpenReaches,” says Katrina Hassell, North Lanarkshire’s head of business solutions. “Eventually, they will be coming to invest in us anyway. But we want them as soon as possible so we can get 4G and 5G in rural areas with poor connectivity.”
North Lanarkshire’s business case for digitisation describes a “challenging economy”. The area has low levels of educational attainment, high levels of poverty and poor health, a decreasing working-age population and a projected increase in older residents requiring support.
But the document predicts that, over 10 years, every £1 of public sector investment in broadband will see a £20 net positive economic benefit. In addition, this infrastructure will be a platform for digital innovation and skills, service innovation and access to global markets.
The new year has arrived with Agilisys on the starting blocks to migrate North Lanarkshire’s legacy IT to the cloud. In addition, it will implement Microsoft’s Azure, Office 365 and Dynamics.
The £12m systems integration contract between the authority and Agilisys was signed last autumn. “We have just finished mobilisation with Agilisys,” says Hassell. “They have been looking at our technical state before that move to the cloud, which is the way we want to go. Working on a function-by-function basis, Agilisys will make those changes.”
In summer 2020, North Lanarkshire expects to sign up another company – or companies – in an enterprise contract. Last year it dipped a toe in the water with a pre-tender notice. This outlined the council’s desire for a long-term partnership to provide innovative ways of delivering interconnected property, community assets and infrastructure investment.
Ratio of local economic benefit North Lanarkshire Council expects to be realised from every £1 it invests in broadband in next 10 years
Worth of systems integration contract with Agilisys
Number of in-house IT systems under review
Date of event at which council plans to host major network providers
The contract will contribute to chief executive Des Murray’s plans to revitalise local communities, as Hassell explains: “We want to use our town centres to create community hubs. They will host a variety of council and other services. We are also exploring the possibility of having wider public services, touch points for the police, NHS and employment services.”
The new year also marks the anniversary of Hassell’s first 12 months in post. She arrived as Murray completed a restructure which saw the creation of her division, business solutions, which is charged with driving digitisation.
After a couple of months of research, Hassell realised the council had started channel shift, particularly using its website and customer portal. But progress has been “piecemeal, siloed and just wasn’t taking off”.
Some services have been digitised successfully. Waste and graffiti reporting are prime examples. But Hassell admits the council has “very few services that are end-to-end, that [begin with] a customer putting in an enquiry or request that actually hits operatives’ handheld devices.”
An in-house assessment of 66 existing IT systems found a range of issues.
Multiple legacy systems were used to meet niche or specific needs. Processes were manually intensive and inefficient. Data was not well used to inform decision making.
Meanwhile, Hassell is keen for new services that are designed around outcomes and people, not the council’s internal structure. She wants to “future proof” the council by offering services the way the younger generation expects to use them. Plus, she aims to empower residents to self-manage using digital technologies which will direct them to the right resources and even anticipate their needs.
The council appears to take digital exclusion seriously. It promises that information on digital platforms will be adapted for people with language and literacy difficulties, including using signing and chatbots for assistance.
“I totally get that not everybody will be able to do digital and we are always trying to keep a town centre community hub presence so that people can still interact with us face-to-face,” says Hassell.
As with any programme of change, there are challenges. Hassell says that one of the biggest is pace because of the volume of interrelated change. The council is changing all its technologies at the same time as rationalising its office base and bringing in new external digital partners.
I totally get that not everybody will be able to do digital and we are always trying to keep a town centre community hub presence so that people can still interact with us face-to-face.
“We have had to reduce our employee base over the past few years, so we don’t have a lot of people to be delivering all of that,” she says.
Culture is the other hurdle. To overcome this, the staff in business solutions have invested a great deal of time getting corporate buy-in. Function by function, they have communicated with management, unions and staff about the digital plans and what employees need from these.
“We will always be reviewing where we are at and where we need to go,” says Hassell. “But we are good from a cultural point of view. Certainly, most of our employees are very enthused about what we are going to do and there is a great energy about the place.”