Local intelligence – a roundtable discussion

Written by Tom Freeman on 19 March 2019 in Inside Politics

Associate feature: When will the work Scottish local authorities do to digitise services become truly transformative?

Pythagoras roundtable on digital transformation - credit Matt Beech/Holyrood

Digital transformation is something local authorities recognise and sign up to, but can any of the work been done so far really be described as transformative?

As Scottish councils digitise processes and transactions, are they meeting the expectations of their residents?

These questions were addressed by a recent roundtable event with Holyrood magazine in partnership with top Microsoft partner Pythagoras. Round the table were some of Scotland’s top digital leaders at a local authority level.

All participants said their council was working to transition their services onto digital and online platforms but still had some distance to go.

“I think everything we’ve done up till now probably has been at the edge of transformation, rather than transformation,” said Rhona McGrath, head of customer and business services at Renfrewshire Council.

Karen Cawte, digital transformation manager at West Lothian Council said she had been seconded to the post but had found it hard to influence change.

“We’ve built some bits and pieces where I’ve got some enthusiasm from services, but we’re still needing to make a step change in terms of what we’re doing,” she said.

Jonathan Cormie, digital manager at Angus Council said: “We would like to think we’re quite far on with our digital journey, but although Angus has done lots of work on digital, it’s hard to point out something that’s truly transformative.”

Services are often being provided in a way that suits the authority rather than its customers, he suggested.

Karen MacFarlane, digital services manager at North Lanarkshire council, said she had already met with resistance from some staff in services.

“I think the problem is not the technology or the services we deliver it is the culture, both within the community we serve and the organisation,” she said.

“People within councils tend to be ‘that’s how I’ve always done it, so that’s what works’.”

Nicola Harvey, head of customer and digital services at City of Edinburgh council, said councils would be addressing the issue differently if they had to fight for their customers like a private sector organisation.

“I hate using the word digital. I think it’s the latest buzzword. For me it’s about how we deliver the basic services to residents within our domain in a simple and easy way,” she said.

Edinburgh has stripped back the layers of communication with its residents, she said, and looked at automation to deal with simple complaints and requests. This frees up staff to do more interesting front-facing jobs, she added.

“That bin, that street light, that pot hole, the things that don’t work are what drives frustration. So that’s where we started. The transactions. Parking, the places you’d think. Those are life moments for residents that we must get right,” said Harvey.

Scotland’s local government digital office was established in 2016 to ensure all councils became digital businesses by 2020. However, it has taken until now for all 32 of Scotland’s local authorities to sign up, according to COSLA’s Douglas Shirlaw.

“It took three years to get all 32 committed to the local government digital office. We’re there now, and we can really drive change through that,” he said.

McGrath is on the delivery board, and believes it is at “a turning point”.

“It’s probably only now, albeit at the end of the two years, that people are beginning to see the value in the release of information, the collaborative working that’s been going on,” she said.

Waste services was something all participants raised as an example of where digitising the service can give residents more of a say.

“It suits us to lift your bin on a Wednesday morning. Actually, you might want to say ‘I do lots of recycling, just come and get my bin when it’s full’,” said Cormie.

Harvey said expectations could be managed by being more honest with residents about how long things take.

“Tell the truth,” she said. “If it’s taking ten days to pick up a bin where one has been missed, then say that. Tell them what you are going to do and allow them to track it. That reduces demand and stops everybody chasing their tails. It stops elected members having to come in and asking you what’s happening with an inquiry.”

Derek Masson, ICT programme and delivery manager at Edinburgh council, said: “I joined the local authority from the private sector 14 years ago and the first project I encountered was a CRM project talking about missed bins. Fourteen years later we’re still talking about it.

“Instead of talking about how we can join communities and change society, we’re still locked into missed bins.”

But the two things aren’t mutually exclusive, Falkirk Council’s Fiona Campbell pointed out.

“There’s a whole swathe of people who only contact the council when something goes wrong, but there are a significant number of people who need our services who aren’t getting our services at the moment, and I think we need to reshape what we’re doing as authorities to make sure we are not missing out, and that we are refocussing on them.”

During a service redesign Falkirk Council realised there were a whole number of families who were completely missing out on support they were entitled to, meaning digital exclusion was built into to future work.

Ian Robson of Pythagoras said: “You’re not going to digitise anything without the technology. That’s the definition. It’s a series of ones and noughts that gets the job done. But what I see at a lot of authorities is the disconnect between the technology’s ability and what the business wants, which is sometimes second guessed by IT and delivered to them only for the business to say no, this isn’t right.

“Actually, the business can be equally guilty of second guessing what the customer wants. The real question is how do you find out what the customer wants?”

When Edinburgh closed its physical high street office for renovations, they used the opportunity to persuade more residents to move their transactions online, but Harvey told the story of how one elderly lady came back with cash anyway, as she missed the social interaction.

This identified a need the council was not addressing, she suggested.

“Technology can include people,” said Campbell. “There are people who have problems leaving their house, there are people who have problems engaging with services, and if we can make it easier for them to do it online, giving them the tools and the wherewithal to engage with us is a first step to coming in and having further engagement.”

Robson pointed to examples where online forums have allowed communities to organise themselves to coordinate local solutions like litter volunteers. In another example, a council set up a peer support forum for those interested in fostering and adoption.

“You are creating an environment where customers are less demanding of the council because they are finding other people in their community who can help them with the quality of life that they seek,” he said.

But councils are still awash with data that isn’t being drawn together, it was suggested.

“We’re data rich,” said Diarmuid Cotter, customer service delivery manager at Fife Council. “We should know [what people want and need]. Customers think we do know, because they’ve told us countless times.”

MacFarlane said: “Behind the scenes with us it is a manual process of pulling out the information when they tell us once and firing out an email to all these different services. That should just happen automatically, so that you’re not writing to somebody and their partner has just died. That’s basic.”

“We’ve too much data and very little intelligence,” agreed McGrath.

A troubled families programme in Enfield uses data to identify families who could need social services intervention before it happens, allowing for earlier preventative support to take place, according to Robson. Campbell said a similar idea had been trialled in Stirling but services and partners were unwilling to stigmatise children and their families before problems arose.

“We don’t have staff who are necessarily employed as data analysts,” said Cawte. “We don’t have folk looking at all the data we are producing to do that predicative stuff on where we need to be focusing our resources. We haven’t yet moved in terms of the new skillsets and new types of jobs that we need.”

In fact, some who use technology at home come into work still wedded to paper processes, she suggested.

Still some way to go, then? “As people interesting in technology and customer service, this is really high up our agenda,” said Campbell. “I’m not sure this is on the agenda of a social worker, teachers, with digital maturity and leadership. Do we have people in services who are the future directors of those services actually thinking about this? Is this their core business now? I don’t think so.”

Harvey challenged local authorities to abandon “the victim card” when it comes to limited budgets.

“Coming in from the private sector and watching what goes on at a local authority, in my humble opinion the politics kick in. There is a fear factor about doing something different, the fear it appears on the front of a local newspaper,” she said.

“I guess what I would say to everybody is hold your nerve. If you appear on the front of a newspaper for trying to do something good, then if that’s the worst that can happen then so be it. I think we can move at pace. It is about breaking it down, starting small and forget about the politics.

“When you face the politicians, stick to the facts. Don’t talk about concepts. Go in once you’ve got a pilot underway and you have facts.

“When you have factual evidence and can say ‘we’re now running this automation and four weeks’ worth of work has been cleared and completed successfully to a quality standard within five hours’, you can’t argue with that.”

This roundtable was in association with Pythagoras

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