Blackpool’s Silicon Sands vision and how AI supports social work in Coventry – six things we learned at Socitm President’s conference

At the Birmingham event, local authorities and NHS bodies shared plans and experiences on issues including datacentre investment, clearing helpdesk queues and why some transformation leaders hate the word ‘digital’

With the UK’s general election just a few weeks away, civil servants were unable to speak at the Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation’s (Socitm) annual President’s Conference on 12-13 June. Instead, delegates at the Birmingham NEC Hilton heard a string of local public sector leaders discussing their plans, experiences and tips to improve their organisations and localities.

Blackpool plans Silicon Sands low-carbon datacentre site
Blackpool Council will take advantage of hosting a new transatlantic fibreoptic cable and connections to offshore wind farms to develop a low-carbon datacentre and computing site, head of IT services Anthony Doyle told the event. The 40-acre Silicon Sands site, part of its airport enterprise zone, is near the landing points of the CeltixConnect-2 fibre optic cable to Dublin and New York as well as planned grid connections for Irish Sea wind farms, a solar generation farm and battery capacity.

The council is promoting Silicon Sands as a location for net zero carbon emission datacentres that use liquid immersion cooling and recycle residual energy through a district heat network. Doyle said the latter could be used by the council’s Sandcastle water park, currently its single biggest energy cost, as well as new social housing. Normally, “communities don’t want data centres,” Doyle said, given their huge power needs and waste heat. “If you could capture heat from data and put it into a district heat network, you could turn it into a community asset.”

Doyle said that “near-premise computing’” involving datacentres within a few miles of users will be required for high-speed applications in robotics, manufacturing and artificial intelligence. He also noted Blackpool’s location near the new National Cyber Force centre at Samlesbury in Lancashire which opens next year, as well as thousands of technology professionals and graduates with lower labour costs than elsewhere in the UK.

He said Blackpool is showing its ability to regenerate through projects including the £100m civil service hub for more than 3,000 government staff, which is due to open at Talbot Gateway next year, with the council having just opened an extension to its tram network to the site, which is next to Blackpool North railway station. It has also revamped its Winter Gardens conference centre and is planning a linked hotel, with the aim of bringing political party conferences back to the seaside town.

North Yorkshire’s transformation director hates ‘digital’
Robert Ling, North Yorkshire Council’s director of transformation, told delegates to stop talking digital. “I quite honestly hate the word ‘digital’ because I think it’s become such a barrier to everything that we do,” he said. Referring to a conversation with someone who complained of difficulties in involving chief executives and other senior managers in digital work, he said: “The C-suite are not generally interested in digital, they are interested in performance, benefits and outcomes.”

North Yorkshire Council, which was formed in April 2023 from the area’s county and seven district councils, has built two processes for blue badge applications for disabled parking permits. The digital one is used by 93% of applicants, which allows capacity for the council to run a service for the remaining 7% where applicants send in forms and documents and council staff call them at an agreed time to complete the application. “You have got to think about all the channels through which people are engaged, not just digital,” Ling said.

The council carries out testing with user groups but launched one service where a few people could not use either the digital or alterative processes. Ling said it showed the need to broaden user testing and not use the same groups every time. “Good design is really expensive. But you know what, getting it wrong is outrageously expensive, because you spend an awful lot of time dealing with failure,” he said, adding that accessibility work is carried out by the council’s user experience team rather than dedicated staff, as it should be everyone’s concern rather than something that gets pigeonholed.

Oxfordshire has halved application numbers with ‘cloud-appropriate’ approach
Oxfordshire County Council has reduced the number of software applications it supports from more than 750 five years ago to a number in the low 300s, its head of IT services Alastair Read told the event. “It’s not cloud everything, it’s definitely cloud appropriate,” he said. “Office 365 makes sense, but there are other things that you need to keep on-prem. Having frameworks to identify what should and shouldn’t go into cloud is the way to look at these things.” As part of its rationalisation the council now uses the same platform for adult and children’s social care and education.

The county recently replaced its conventional network with a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN): “We use the internet as our wide area network,” said Read. “People make mistakes.”

Connecting through an SD-WAN means staff can be secure regardless of their location and will save Oxfordshire between £450,000 and £550,000 annually. It is part of a broader shift to zero-trust principles and stronger security defences: “We didn’t have cybersecurity,” Read said of the situation five years ago. “We did that as a professional courtesy, not as a job.” Tim Spiers, director of IT, innovation, digital and transformation, said that Oxfordshire undertook a “health check” of its IT services in 2019, asking all services what worked and what didn’t. Read said that before this, “we thought we were brilliant, but I don’t think our customers thought we were brilliant – we were a little bit arrogant”.

Coventry finds AI savings elusive but social workers are excited
Coventry City Council has cut its number of Microsoft Copilot licences from 300 to 100 following a three-month pilot which found that while the generative artificial intelligence service was useful for automated meeting notetaking, it was less clear how it could generate cashable savings. “We are continuing our use of AI through Copilot but we have reduced our licences down to 100,” said Tracy Ledwidge, the city’s operational delivery manager.

She added there were promising results from a small-scale six week trial in children’s services, which used generative AI to produce case notes and chronologies as well as fill in forms. It found the system changed case note writing from a chore into a process that aided social workers’ decision-making. “The AI tool tidied up the language and pulled out points that they missed,” Ledwidge said, allowing staff to focus on what actions they should take next. “They were so excited.” It could also generate chronologies in seconds which were in most cases more accurate than those produced manually. She added that if use of AI could support earlier appropriate interventions, this could generate significant long-term benefits including financial savings for the council and better outcomes for the families concerned, although cost could be a barrier to adoption.

Coventry is one of 10 organisations taking part in a Socitm benchmarking pilot on the uses of AI. Technology consultant Matthew Fraser said the initial results showed that while none has found AI to be a disaster, only three of the 10 including Coventry have reported benefits so far. Aside from cost, organisations reported that a lack of skilled staff and poor understanding could hold them back from using AI.

One NHS trust clears its – IT helpdesk – waiting list each morning
Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust has seven staff answering service desk calls each morning until it clears its queue, with an average time to answer calls of 37 seconds, executive director for information technology and digital Martin Sadler told the event. After the queue is cleared, four of the seven staff move to different roles where they can develop different skills.

Sadler said that many NHS IT service desks provide a poor service to customers, showing pictures of notices reading ‘Zero walk-ins policy, appointment only’ and another telling visitors who do not have an appointment to phone a number to book one. “It is changing, but there is an attitude of IT service desks that just needs to change a bit faster,” he said.

Sandwell and West Birmingham measures a ‘combined wait’ time from the moment at which technology fails rather than call waiting times to acknowledge that these are often caused by network, software and supplier problems rather than how quickly the service desk can fix things. It also runs an informatics shop, where staff can visit to collect computer peripherals by providing just their names and departments. On one occasion, colleagues set up the shop at an event for hospital staff at Aston Villa’s stadium to distribute stock and on another, soon after the pandemic, someone asked for 18 headsets for everyone in their department. “We said what’s your name, where do you work, would you like us to help you carry them back? Because no-one is going to be stupid enough to lose their job for stealing something worth £5,” Sadler said.

How partner organisations can avoid a new domain
Public-sector organisations setting up partnerships can avoid applying for a new domain for email by using one of their old names as a subdomain and the other as the main one, the chief executive of Brentwood Borough Council and Rochford District Council told the event.

Jonathan Stephenson, who has led the two Essex councils on a permanent basis since January 2022 following a six-month “try before you buy” trial, said his team had talked to central government for several months about whether it could have a single domain for a partnership short of a full merger before realising the two councils could use two councils, which have no common border, share many staff and processes but remain formally separate with two sets of councillors.

Stephenson said that the two councils have cut about £1m from their budgets and increased their resilience as roles previously taken by one person in each council are now done by two, allowing for illness and holiday cover. He added that the partnership has improved staff recruitment and retention, with just one vacant post among the 50 top managers who all work for both councils, given interest in the new structure. The councils are in the process of merging most departments, although a few locally-focused services will remain separate.

The councils share many policies, although Stephenson noted that there are a few differences: “If [inland] Brentwood needs a coastal erosion policy, there wouldn’t be a [coastal] Rochford,” he said. More significantly, the two councils started with significant cultural differences with Brentwood willing to go into debt to invest while Rochford would generally prefer to cut costs. Some Brentwood staff assumed that Stephenson, who previously led just Rochford, would favour his long-time colleagues but when in some cases he chose staff from Brentwood, some saw this as disloyal.

Stephenson said that the frequency of collaborations, full mergers and large-scale reorganisations in local government means there is a strong case for common systems and processes across the sector, to minimise the impact of such reorganisations on citizens.

SA Mathieson edits Socitm’s In Our View magazine

SA Mathieson

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