Digital transformation in a local authority: A conversation with Paul Brewer, Director for Digital & Resources at Adur and Worthing Councils.

Paul BrewerPaul, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and role at Adur and Worthing Councils?
I’ve had a mixed career of working in the private sector at Ericsson and public sector. I’ve worked in local authorities for some years. I was at Brighton and Hove City Council working in Children’s Services, including latterly looking at technology and supporting the most vulnerable people.

I am Director for Digital and Resources at Adur & Worthing Councils. That is a new way of saying and doing IT alongside the resources part which are the back office functions of the Council. That’s finance, HR and legal. It’s a new role created as part of the new Chief Executive’s vision. He came in about 18 months ago and created a strategy – Catching the Wave – which is very much about the Council starting to see their role in the locality a bit differently.

Fixing IT systems which will support digital projects is critical
There was a fundamental question – what is digital for a local authority? What does that look it like?

We could create some lightweight agile digital projects that would start to show the ideas around user-centred design and agile. We could do that. But my experience previously is that those projects have some success but they skirt around the edges of a more fundamental problem which relates to the big line of business IT applications that local authorities have which have grown up over years. Typically these keep customer information fragmented and keep individual services isolated from each other.

What we decided to do was to engage some expert help from outside, to do a more complete diagnosis of the problem which actually keeps innovation at the edges rather than allow it to be mainstream.

The risk was you could do some exemplar projects but unless you adjust some of the key issues like the organisational approach to security, information and governance, the actual big line of business IT systems, you excite people but you still get this experience of yeah but nothing much has really changed. So I didn’t want people to have that experience and we are now actively addressing the underlying IT problems.

We did what we called a Discovery Phase and a Blueprinting Phase that was very much about understanding the overall architecture and then developing a strategy to tackle that. It was important to acknowledge that our line of business IT systems are legacy systems. We are quite trapped in long-term, relatively expensive on the premises contracts with some of the bigger suppliers. So we developed a strategy saying we don’t want to keep doing that, we want to move away.

Finding solutions – Government as a Platform
We started to develop the model of Government as a Platform – so a horizontal based selection of technology. We had a blueprint of what the future would look like around how we would handle and manage data, how we would develop Open Standards, have new procurement rules around Open Standards, open APIs and a migration to the cloud.

We don’t have to build solutions from scratch
Fundamentally we had to recognise that as a small district council we cannot build from scratch. We don’t have that kind of funding.

We are very attracted to the idea that actually there are some requirements which are bespoke, we recognise some are commodities and some are utilities. We are very much interested in that kind of technology selection principle if there’s a payment capability used by Amazon or Tesco why wouldn’t we use that? Why would we buy a payment system engine from a local government supplier? If there’s a CRM system out there in the cloud which has an enormous capability like Salesforce, why wouldn’t we use that?

So we’ve moving our email and collaboration suite to Google for Work. We are creating a citizen interaction platform which is a tightly structured combination of Salesforce and MatsSoft, which is a business process platform. It’s a low code platform which fits district councils quite well because essentially we can train Business Analysts and they can build digital products on it through drag and drop. These are platforms where we can build our own products quite rapidly.

Some of the technologies we have selected are new to local government. The MatsSoft product is new to local government but is well established in other sectors, particularly financial services. We have taken tried and tested and secure solutions and just applied it to a local government context. It’s been a technology heavy period over the last six months.

Bringing people with you – stimulating a new culture
What I am particularly keen on with Google for Work is that it will be a big signal and culture carrier. What’s really exciting about the Google platform is that everybody is going to get a feel for it.

We are creating Digital Champions, so we have got about 80 people being trained to become Champions across the business to start to help staff with the transition. They will go out and seed and stimulate change across the business using the Google platform. We will need the 80 Digital Champions to let people know this isn’t just about your email.

A digital exemplar: Green bins
We are going to drive out a lot of inefficiencies and make green bins a self-service offer to customers. The really important thing to say is that lots of councils do self-service. The difficultly is that the self-service tends to be quite skin deep. The traditional model is to get a good web front end and get forms for customers to fill in and the ability to make payments and if they are lucky an amount of integration with the back office system. But the problem is that to get a better proper self-service system like Amazon you need to be able to go from start to finish all of the way through and have a satisfying, unifying, complete experience.

The green bins have been selected because it’s a revenue generator for us. It’s relatively straightforward and it allows us to implement a number of different capabilities on the platform. So those capabilities are the ability to make a payment, the ability to book a slot and so on. Those capabilities can be used for other products. So the next product will be bulky waste. So we will be able to do that quite a bit quicker. Then we will do clinical waste which will be even quicker.

Then down the line it might be to think about what is actually happening there. It’s green waste in the garden. Should we be throwing it away in the first place? What are the bigger questions? There is something about quite deep attitudinal change and how that happens.

The digital team
We are at the beginning in terms of our internal resources to create a digital service, which uses service design principles to help rethink services and digitalise where appropriate. Currently the team is made up of the web team, application support team, people in procurement and a number of Champion roles. We also have our IT service which is bought in from a neighbouring council.

A Head of Design will be appointed shortly and that person will then create the new team. We would like a review of skills, we have got some roles in mind that we want to create. People may want to slot into them, there might be some external recruitment, there may be some provision for bringing people in on a freelance basis. We will start to look at our digital service being made up of Service Designers, Product Managers and Project Managers.

We will develop our offer to the business which says we have got the tools and we have got some approaches here around user centred design and we can help you rethink how your service could be.

Digital leadership and capability
We are very much focussed on digital leadership and capability. That capability stuff will be ensuring all of the leaders in the organisation know what digital means and what its potential is.

User research and understanding user needs
What does the user actually need from us? How do we get out of the way of imposing solutions and seeing solutions emerge in a different way? What’s the role of digital in allowing us to provide new services in a different kind of way?

We need to get users involved early. We are learning a bit about speaking with end users. So in terms of user research there is the observational side to make sure our Alpha and Beta products are thoroughly tested with users.

As the team is created, the probability is that we will have a Service Designer who will start to develop those skills around ethnography and user research. We have put a bid in for a user research lab with the GLA that’s modelled on the GDS user research lab to do observation of people using our digital products.

At the rethinking of the service level stage we will develop an offer where we start there (user research).

You can follow Paul Brewer @pdbrewer and Adur and Worthing Councils @adurandworthing and read Paul’s blog About the digital future of public services

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