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Flexible and remote working: how is Liverpool City Council managing during the Covid-19 crisis?

messy desk with a monitor and keyboard

Socitm’s Improve annual report 2020 was published on 6 May. A highlight was the rise in public sector users equipped to work flexibly rose from 39.7% to 75.1%.

Alison Hughes is a Socitm Vice President and Assistant Director for ICT, Digital and Customer at Liverpool City Council. She describes the council’s digital programme, its challenges and successes and how they are working to a background of Covid-19

Where was Liverpool on its agile and remote working journey ahead of this crisis?

Liverpool had in place an ambitious, digital first transformation programme, with a strong focus on using Office 365 and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology to support agile working. We were also in the process of shifting more of our services online. Our website acts as our virtual front door, with a balance between effective, accessible online services for residents and interesting, engaging news for the annual 67.3m visitors.

When the crisis hit, our ICT service was two thirds of the way through a programme to implement VDI. The project dovetailed with a corporate programme aimed at increasing agile working and reducing the number of buildings we occupy. A plan was in place to begin relocating staff to modern office space, with access to agile desktops and technology. The team was also preparing to roll out Office 365, with Skype for Business still in use pending this.

Training and ongoing support

Our staff were at different levels of understanding when it came to agile/flexible/home working. A significant amount was being done to provide guidance, advice, support and training to them, and to managers, to embrace new ways of working.

As might be expected, there were still some elements of council services which required face to face contact with customers, and we were looking at these as part of a digital redesign programme. In March, we purchased a new contact centre telephony solution, with options to improve agile working capability, customer experience and introduce lots of new features, with a view to implementing this over the next few months.

How has technology helped you to approach this crisis?

As soon as it became clear how it was going to become, particularly in the two to three weeks before the lockdown, work began on a solution to support our workforce.

  • Temporary remote access
    Our ICT service set up a temporary remote access solution, enabling 1500+ staff to securely access our network remotely every day from personal devices and to do all of the work they needed to do from home. This was set up very quickly and at a very low cost. I am extremely proud of my team for responding so fast, and so effectively, under such pressure. The rest of our workforce – around 2,500 – are accessing the network via council laptops. We were successful in securing and deploying an additional 350 devices for priority one staff in the first two weeks of the crisis. This was no mean feat, given the competition for resources at the time.
  • Contact centre staff working from home
    Our 90+ contact centre staff are now delivering a service from home, using a range of technology. The service is as good as it ever has been in terms of performance. We have also enabled 60+ face to face customer staff (from One Stop Shops) to work from home, receiving and making calls to residents who have requested food deliveries and other support. They are able to support the contact centre team and also back office functions – such as Blue Badges, parking permits, and processing documents relating to Revenues and Benefits and business support grants. This has been a challenge in terms of sourcing the equipment, given the level of demand for this both nationally and internationally and the timescales for delivery. All the efforts have been worth it and the team has had wonderful feedback from residents about the support they have received from staff at this frightening time.
  • Digital team
    Our Digital Team has faced a constant challenge in ensuring that our website is kept up to date with accurate information for residents. They have set up web forms and created processes for completely new service requirements at very short notice and worked with suppliers to implement a new system to manage requests for Covid-19 support from residents, working with staff and volunteers.

What was your greatest challenge?

ICT had to make some big changes to the council’s infrastructure in the first week of the crisis to cope with the unprecedented demand placed on us by the volume of staff remotely accessing the network. We had some stressful days as we worked to strengthen our infrastructure, with the determined team working overnight and evenings to make the changes. All eyes were on ICT for those few days and I am proud of the effort put in by each and every member of my team.

What have been the biggest changes?

  • Culture: The shift in culture has been phenomenal, right across the council.
  • Residents: We have focused on what is most important to our residents and made sure that the required changes happened quickly.
  • Virtual: The council has embraced virtual meetings as a way of working, engaging and doing our business, at rapid pace.
  • New tools: We have used new tools like Zoom, which although it has security and governance issues to be mindful of, has proved invaluable in bringing people together virtually in areas that we never imagined, such as Children’s Services.
  • Software: Microsoft Teams has been rolled out, with far less support than we envisaged being given to staff as part of our well planned ‘adoption and change’ programme. Staff have pragmatically ‘given it a go’.
  • Adaptability: Our staff have shown tenacity and problem-solving skills like never before and supported each other through this agile journey. The council’s staff Facebook page has been well utilised with great examples of colleagues helping each other to solve technical difficulties and coming up with solutions, without any intervention from ICT. It has also been used to share positive feedback about ICT which has boosted morale amongst the team during long working days.
  • Partnerships: We have worked with new community partners and our suppliers to help deliver ICT solutions and quickly developed and implemented online processes together, to manage these new activities.

And the future?

Speed and resilience
We have learned that we can move much more quickly to embrace new technology than we previously thought and that our people are amazingly resilient and resourceful. This crisis has:

  • broken down service and organisational silos
  • generated a spirit of togetherness
  • generated a sense of purpose that has helped us to overcome challenges.

We must harness this for the future.

The role of ICT at work and at home
There is without doubt a greater appreciation of the important role that ICT and digital people can play in ensuring that we can continue to serve our public and workforce during this time. This can only bode well for how we work together in the future. There has been creative use of home technology like never before. We have seen it in the family Zoom chats, Friday night quizzes and home schooling in our day to day lives. We need to exploit this, use the learning, to take some of the new approaches to the next level for our new ‘business as usual’ world.

The most important change that I have seen is the amount of time taken to say “thank you” – for all the extra effort, for going the additional distance, for recognising that this is a difficult time for everybody. And this is something that I am definitely going to make sure that we do more of in the future.

About Alison Hughes

Alison is Assistant Director for ICT, Digital and Customer at Liverpool City Council. A relative newcomer to the authority, having only started in Liverpool in the New Year, Alison oversees the council’s Contact Centre, and face-to-face customer services through One Stop Shops, as well as digital and ICT services. She has been at the forefront of the council’s technological response to Covid-19. Alison previously worked at Wigan and Bolton Council and has been a Vice President of Socitm since 2019.

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