At the end of a challenging year, local government chiefs discuss the impact on digital and data
After beaches became dangerously crowded in the early summer, an app helped BCP Council disperse people Credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images
If necessity really is the mother of invention, then 2020 must have been just about the most inventive year in recorded history.
Local councils, tasked with delivering a wide range of critical front-line services on budgets that have shrunk rapidly in recent years, are no strangers to inventing new ways of doing things that, for the citizens they serve, are absolutely necessary. This year, with a depleted or distant workforce and rising demand for support and assistance, they have had to invent new ways for the new ways.
For those who already worked in transformation-focused roles, the challenges of 2020 have presented major obstacles to be overcome – but also an opportunity to showcase the benefits of smarter use of digital, data and technology.
“It has slowed down some of the technology from a practical perspective but, in terms of the philosophy of what we want to do as a smart place, my goodness it has made the case for what we’re trying to do,” says Adrian Hale, lead for the smart place strategy and programme at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council.
Hale, who was speaking during a panel discussion at the PublicTechnology Local Government ICT Summit last month, said that the issue with overcrowded beaches in Bournemouth (pictured above) towards the end of the first national lockdown in June had been an example of how tech can be used to solve new problems.
“Technology can be used as an excuse to hide behind not wanting to rebuild processes and look at different ways of doing things. It comes back to putting the end user front and centre, and designing processes that focus on the citizen, rather than being based around ‘this is the way the internal system works’.”
Richard Friend, Jadu
A ‘major incident’ was declared – and reported on by press across the world – as hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the area’s beaches, at a time when hospitality venues remained shut and even modest gatherings were still banned.
“But within a couple of weeks we developed this BCP Council beach app – which has got phenomenal downloads,” Hale said. “It is able to identify [which areas are crowded]… normally people migrate to Bournemouth pier, or Sandbanks, in Poole – and nowhere else. And, yet, we have got about 13 miles of beach. So, you think: ‘hang on a minute, people need to understand they can go elsewhere’. So, the app enabled people to disperse.”
Alison McKenzie-Folan, chief executive of Wigan Council, said that local authorities across the country have needed to “show innovation and courageousness, and be agile and flexible” as new demands – such as administering additional business-support grants – have been placed on them. In addition to supporting these new services and policy directives, Wigan has also rolled out technology as a means of helping citizens stay connected to crucial services – and to each other.
“We have remembered that we connect to people – and that is what is at the heart of local, it is about people and our communities,” she said. “We have tried to use digital to keep those connections going, and also for positivity. [For example], we gave out 50 iPads to the hospital for people who were in ICU who might potentially be going to lose their lives and who couldn’t connect to their loved ones; we have given 100 iPads to care homes to keep people connected. We have started up a new ‘Tech Mates’ programme to make sure that people who are feeling isolated have the confidence to be digitally connected.
“So, as well as doing the processing and transactional bit, we have also seen digital be a force for good and keep us all connected. It has been an incredible effort by staff and we have tried to keep that innovation in everything we have done and be agile.”
Use of digital has been a pillar of Wigan Council’s strategy for the past five years. But, whatever the service or the means of delivery, the authority is determined to put citizens “at the centre” of everything it does, according to McKenzie-Folan.
“We put a huge priority on listening to customers, residents and communities and, ultimately, listening to our staff,” she said. “You can do that in lots of different and innovative ways; we have done a lot of big listening events where we have gone out into communities and listened to their ideas. Essentially, we want them to be involved in co-designing whatever journey it is that residents are going on for a service that we offer as a council and, indeed, for staff that are involved in service delivery. I think [it is about] gaining that understanding of what it means for staff, what it means for residents, and really understanding their expectations and how we can improve what we are doing and where there may be barriers.”
Leaving a legacy
For councils just starting out on a transformation agenda, incumbent – and ageing – technology could be seen as a barrier to making the most of digital platforms and data.
But Richard Friend, vice president of public sector digital transformation specialist Jadu, said that “I don’t think it is an insurmountable barrier”.
“A lot of it comes down to digital leadership,” he added. “Technology can be used as an excuse to hide behind not wanting to rebuild processes and look at different ways of doing things. It comes back to putting the end user front and centre, and designing processes that focus on the citizen, rather than being based around ‘this is the way the internal system works’.”
According to Friend, once you have established what a service is, ultimately, designed to help citizens achieve “there are numbers of technologies out there now that can make things relatively straightforward” in reaching this goal.
He points to work Jadu has done enabling councils to implement booking systems by integrating them with an Office 365 calendar – a technology that will be in use across the vast majority of authorities.
“This is not a complex back-office system, and it is a dead-easy integration… that potentially costs a local authority £10 or £12 a month,” he says. “We had one authority, Medway, doing 80,000 bookings in a month on behalf of seven other local authorities in Kent – just using something that is [widely] available. There are… technologies that allow you to hook up platforms without having to do deep integrations. RPA (robotic process automation) is another field that is coming online for those legacy back-office systems.
“Things like RPA give you the potential to bypass the walls that are being put up. If you have the right mindset, if you have that digital leadership, if you have that sponsorship – just because you have technology that doesn’t allow data to flow, that shouldn’t be a barrier.”
“We want customers, residents and communities to be involved in co-designing whatever journey it is that they are going on for a service that we offer as a council and, indeed, for staff that are involved in service delivery.”
Alison McKenzie-Folan, Wigan Council
Hale from BCP Council would like to see local entities – potentially councils – being empowered to take a greater leadership role in how data is used to support decision-making and service-delivery in their area.
“We can do open data, but that in itself isn’t going to solve the problem. We need… to coordinate that data and bring it together, to make it meaningful. And, with Covid, you have seen sometimes that there is really, really good stuff that has gone on – but if we had more insight… we could respond in a much more agile way,” he said. “And I think that is raising questions about how data is handled, and that is not just about being open – [it is about] who’s taking the responsibility for coordinating it, and what entity is responsible for that. And I think that opens up questions around statutory responsibilities, around giving powers – maybe to local authorities or some other local institution – to be able to coordinate data and be able to call up data from other organisations; to say ‘you will give this data, because this is for the greater good’.”
Floating the possibility of a “local digital authority”, Hale points to the ways in which councils typically serve as the highway authority for their area – as well as to previous examples of local flood-response authorities being established to respond to an ongoing emergency situation.
“There is a disconnect between government and the place – and I think the place can play a far greater role in data governance, data aggregation, and in making it available for people to use and to deliver better outcomes,” he said.