How can councils create a digital workplace?

Written by Sam Trendall on 14 October 2020 in Features
Features

At the recent Local Government ICT Summit, PublicTechnology talked to Gloucestershire County Council and SAP Concur about how authorities can support new ways of working

Credit: Adobe Stock

For any organisation in any sector, achieving transformational change is never easy.

If you employ a collective total of two million people and face growing demand to deliver critical citizen services on ever-shrinking budgets, such transformation might, at times, appear near impossible.

But, in recent years, hundreds of local authorities throughout the UK have turned to technology and data not just to improve their interaction with the public, but also to reimagine the work of their own employees.

At the annual Public Technology Local Government ICT Summit – which took place virtually over three days earlier this month, and for which all content is now available on-demand – one of our panel sessions explored the challenges, benefits, and key considerations for councils seeking to use digital platforms to transform their operations. 

Panellist David Hipwell, local authority sales lead at SAP Concur, said that authorities should begin by examining their current operations, and ascertaining which processes are unnecessarily costly, time-consuming or outdated.

Before commencing a workplace-transformation initiative, organisations should also consider the implications of employees’ working habits, such as the extent to which they already work remotely – and how well equipped they are to do so – and whether some staff or teams are likely to work outside of office hours.

"There was a big emphasis on how do we become more efficient, and how do we free up employee time so that they are not spending time on paperwork, but on delivering excellent services"
Cheryl Millyard, Gloucestershire County Council

Perhaps most importantly, according to Hipwell, is understanding what technology is out there and whether it would have the desired effect.

“The underlying question you need to ask yourself is: would giving employees these tools help or hinder?,” he said.

Even once it is concluded that there is a technology that could prove beneficial, councils need to make sure that staff are comfortable in working with it – and that organisational culture supports doing so, particularly for practices such as remote working that may have been uncommon until recently.

“This is about taking existing processes and turning them into much more efficient digital processes… but it is also about ensuring that the workforce are digitally confident, and are capable of using technology,” Hipwell said. “There may be people… who have been there for 40 years who are not necessarily comfortable with it, so it is about making sure that you provide the change-management process that goes alongside, to make people feel comfortable using these pieces of technology.”

He added: “And it is not just about providing technology, it is about making sure that people – right from the top of the organisation down – are saying ‘it is OK to work from home’.”

Drivers for change
Gloucestershire County Council is, in many ways, an archetypal local authority; it covers a mix of urban centres, such as Gloucester and Cheltenham, alongside the rural areas of the Forest of Dean and the Cotswolds. 

Its £468m budget for the ongoing 2020/21 year – which was set back in February, over a month before the UK went into lockdown – needs to stretch to cover a wide array of essential service areas and civic programmes, including social care, roads, libraries, education, and fire services. Money has also been allocated for initiatives such as rolling out broadband across the county and reducing Co2 emissions.

Gloucestershire’s approach to digitisation is built around five core ‘workstreams’.

These, respectively, address: using digital to connect with citizens; collaboration with partners and the community; use of data and analytics; implementing the right ICT infrastructure; and building the digital skills of the workforce.


£468m
Gloucestershire County Council budget for 2020/21


633,558
Estimated population of Gloucestershire


17,500
Collective number of expense claims filed by council employees each year


£1.5m
Cumulative total of expense payments made by the council
 

3,523
Number of people employed by the council – a figure which has dropped by 2,000 in the last decade


According to Cheryl Millyard, head of the council’s business service centre, the authority’s digital strategy was influenced and propelled by a number of “drivers for change”.

“There was a big emphasis on how do we become more efficient, and how do we free up employee time so that they are not spending time on paperwork, but on delivering excellent services to the people of Gloucestershire,” she said. “I think, as digital has progressed and as technology has progressed over the years, there is also much more of an emphasis on the employee experience: how user-friendly is this tool? How easy is it to access? How much training and development do you need to actually get up and running with it? 

“We wanted to be able to also pull together data to support decision-making; we were unable to look at all our employee spend, because we had three different routes for getting that information together, so things were quite difficult and that made it harder for us to make policy decisions.”

Gloucestershire’s process for managing employee expense claims is an exemplar of an internal procedure that has been transformed by improved use of technology.

The authority, which authorises about £1.3m in expense payments each year, previously processed an annual total of 15,000 claims via an employee self-service tool that could only be accessed via authority-owned devices – plus an extra 2,500 that were submitted on paper. 

Working with SAP Concur, Gloucestershire has implemented a system that allows employees to use their own PCs or mobile devices to submit claims. This is especially useful for those whose work rarely, if ever, takes place in the office – such as the council’s ‘reablement’ team, who travel across the county to provide short-term in-home support for citizens recovering from ill health or an accident.

Previously, these staff had to post paper forms or travel into the office to submit them.

“If they missed deadline for payroll, they could be waiting seven weeks to be reimbursed for their expenses,” Millyard said. “People also had to make a note of expenses as they went along – it was laborious.”

The new expense system is hosted in the cloud, reducing the need for datacentre space, and delivers automation of key functions such as calculating precise mileage and how much VAT can be reclaimed.

The result is a system that has improved efficiency, lessened the burden on front-line service staff, improved accountability and – particularly in enabling VAT reclamations – delivered calculable financial return to the council.

"This is about taking existing processes and turning them into much more efficient digital processes… but it is also about ensuring that the workforce are digitally confident, and are capable of using technology"
David Hipwell, SAP Concur

A desire to change
But, however clear the benefits of digitisation, barriers remain. 

These include a history of local government being more risk-averse than other industries in embracing new technologies and ways of working – perhaps understandably so, considering the consequences for citizens of any interruption in service delivery. 

Given that funding has reduced significantly in recent years, and that all money spent on technology is drawn from the public purse, there are also typically more checks and balances before a transformation project can get underway.

“There has to be an understanding that there is aversion to a lot of changes,” Hipwell said. “When we are looking at a project, we have to ensure that there is a proper business case that sits behind it – which there should be anyway – and we have to make sure that the hard and soft savings are there, and that there is a solid change-management process that sits alongside it. We also have to make sure that the technology is in place, and that people are comfortable using it.”

He added: “There are lots of different elements to this but, with a solid business case and a desire to change, there is nothing that is insurmountable.” 

 

Click here to register to watch the whole panel discussion with Gloucestershire and SAP Concur, and all the other content from the PublicTechnology Local Government ICT Summit - registration is free for representatives of the public sector.

 

About the author

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology

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