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Roundtable: Collaboration and culture are key to making digital progress

Councils remain ambitious despite their funding constraints, an LGC roundtable discussion held in Cardiff in partnership with TechnologyOne heard. Nic Paton reports on the first in series of discussions held across the country.

On the panel

Lis Burnett (Lab), leader, Vale of Glamorgan Council

Martin George (chair), deputy editor, LGC

Nickki Johns, head of digital, Vale of Glamorgan Council

Sean Kearns, strategy and innovation director, FT Longitude

Ian Owen, public sector industry director, TechnologyOne

James Vale, head of customer, digital and ICT services, Torfaen CBC

While people in Great Britain broadly agree their council experience is becoming more digital, this is not necessarily the case in Wales.

A survey of 58 local government leaders and 100 citizens in Wales found they are more likely to say their council experience is analogue (59%) than the wider average (39%), according to research by FT Longitude that was unveiled at a roundtable discussion held in Cardiff by LGC, in partnership with TechnologyOne.

A third of Welsh council respondents (34%) said they felt they were making little or no progress in transitioning key services online while nearly 79% agreed they lacked the agility to effectively deliver services digitally. These both lagged behind the national trends of 26% and 58% respectively.

“There is an awful lot in this report that definitely chimes with our experience,” Lis Burnett (Lab), leader of Vale of Glamorgan Council, told the roundtable.

She added: “The side of it that is missing for me is the political pressure against spending money; also risk aversion within local government. If you have officers who are waiting for something to land on them from a great height if something goes wrong with innovative proposals, then there is a tendency to hold back. Local government will tend to put sticking plasters on things rather than go for a transformational change.”

Identifying trigger events

LGC deputy editor Martin George asked what were the key areas where councils will experience the most digital disruption over the next five years: “What are the opportunities? What’s the prize here?”

“Our ability to have in-the-moment data that allows us to make better, more insightful decisions on a huge range of things,” said Nickki Johns, head of digital at Vale of Glamorgan. “This has really rapidly changed and improved over time, and partnerships in the hardware space to get us the data are something I’m expecting to improve significantly.

“From a data sharing point of view, we are really focused on how we identify event triggers. An event trigger might be ‘I require care’ or ‘tell us once’ [following a bereavement], something which then kicks off a whole load of processes, digitally or non-digitally. So it is about us being there for residents before they even know they need us.”

To do this effectively, however, requires better and more seamless collaboration, participants agreed, with better and more seamless collection and integration of data also vital. “Residents perhaps expect us to have more access to insight and expect it to be linked rather than, as we’re grappling with, siloed data,” said Mr Vale.

“Data, for me, is potentially an enabler for that disruption and that different way of working. So it is about looking at place based models and that has got to really be evidence driven. It is OK to say ‘we’re going to do things slightly differently over here to how we do it over there’ as long as we have got that rationale, and that is backed up by evidence.

“The other one I think, and linked to it, is artificial intelligence. AI has huge potential to disrupt how we all work, in a positive way. But it is also going to be us learning as we go.”

User-centred focus

Funding – or the lack thereof – can be a barrier to investment. “How can councils afford or find the funding to do the things they want to do? The things residents want them to do?” Mr George asked.

“What’s really important is that we embed security by design and privacy by design”

Nickki Johns

“At the moment everybody is completely focused on budgets; it is a daily, pressured conversation,” said Cllr Burnett. “We are all wondering what other costs are coming up. Unless the use of digital technology is seen as an enabler, then it won’t move forward. But hopefully, in the majority of councils, it is.”

Digital progress, Mr Vale emphasised, is not just about getting the technology right, it is about how you’re working as an organisation, your culture, and ensuring you have the right skills and capacity. It is also vital to be coming at these issues and challenges with a user-centred focus, he said.

What about cyber attacks? Was cyber insurance, for example, one answer or – as the panel suggested – not worth the paper it’s written on?

“For us as an organisation, what’s really important is that we embed security by design and privacy by design as part of our design processes, no matter what we’re doing. And that has to be a collective responsibility,” said Ms Johns. “No IT team can administer every system; each department has access to certain things themselves. We need to enable that and therefore education in security is critical. Training in phishing is obviously a massive part and, again, that’s about colleague engagement and education,” she added.

Short-term funding, long-term decisions

Asked for their concluding thoughts, Mr Vale raised the imperative to balance digital progress with inclusion. “It is important that part of our digital-first customer strategy recognises some people won’t want to engage digitally with us and that’s absolutely fine. What we need to understand is why. Is that because they just generally don’t want to or they can’t? And if it’s the latter, how can we support them so they can engage with us?” he said.

“The challenge at the moment is we have short-term funding but we need to make long-term decisions”

Ian Owen

“It is always people with complex needs who occupy most of our time and take up more of the resources, and quite often they are digitally challenged,” said Cllr Burnett. “So how are we supporting all the people who we could deal with more simply? And then solving that issue so we can start to look at those more complex needs people have.”

Not reinventing the wheel all the time was also important, said Ms Johns, something that again emphasised the importance of collaboration and sharing of best practice. There also needed to be better, more nuanced marketing of digital careers within local government to show how and why they can be attractive, she argued.

“The challenge at the moment is we have short-term funding but we need to make long-term decisions,” concluded Ian Owen, public sector industry director at TechnologyOne.

“And that is really difficult, when you have not got the certainty of funding, even if there is some certainty around the cost you’re going to incur from making a change. That is the challenge I don’t think anybody can solve at the moment.”

Originally published in the LGC, 29 MAY 2024 


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