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Event roundup: President’s Conference, 12-13 June 2024

A community that helps communities

I can’t stop smiling and I’m not apologising for it – I am really, really thrilled to be Socitm president. We have some fantastic auction items and earlier today we had a chat about Capstone Care Leavers Trust, which is the charity that I have chosen. Its founder Zoe Greenwood is here tonight so do dig deep into your pockets.

Carol Williams speaking at President's Conference 2024
Carol Williams, Socitm president. Photo by Matt Horwood

Thank you all for coming and thank you for making this a wonderful community. I think one of the constants during my career has been Socitm. What is really great is the way in which it has changed and developed over time – it is very responsive to the needs of you, our members. A big thank you to the partners who support us and the membership team who put on events like this.

We are looking at the opportunities for the coming year and how we can support this community. Let’s not forget that everything that we do, although we talk about IT quite a lot, is to help our communities and ‘People make places’ is the theme running through the conference.

I hope you enjoy your meal and have a great night, but remember we still have lots to do tomorrow!

Carol Williams, Socitm president

This is an edited version of Carol Williams’ speech at her president’s dinner in Birmingham on 12 June. The charity auction, run by former Socitm vice-president Alison Hughes, has so far raised more than £2,300 for Capstone Care Leavers Trust which awards grants to support young people who have been in care.

President’s Conference day one

Oxfordshire’s five-year plan: less software, no Wan and zero trust

Oxfordshire County Council has changed how it provides IT services since 2019 to refocus on what internal customers need, two of its technology leaders told day one of Socitm President’s Conference.

Alastair Read speaking at President's Conference 2024
Alastair Read, Oxfordshire County Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

Initial engagement with the council’s services and leadership made them realise they were not doing as well as they thought. “We thought we were brilliant, but I don’t think our customers thought we were brilliant – we were a little bit arrogant,” said head of IT services Alastair Read.

Since 2019, Oxfordshire has cut supported software applications from more than 750 to the low 300s, including use of the same software for adult and children’s social care and education. It takes what Read called a “cloud appropriate” approach that uses frameworks to decide when cloud-based services including Microsoft Office 365 are appropriate, with some other software hosted on-premise.

The county has recently completed its move from a conventional wide area network (Wan) to a software-defined equivalent (SD-Wan). This will save between £450,000 and £550,000 annually, it allows staff to work from anywhere and promotes the council’s shift toward zero-trust security principles. Five years ago, “we didn’t have cybersecurity, we did that as a professional courtesy, not as a job,” Read said, but the shift to more cloud-based software and implementing the SD-Wan have changed this.

Tim Spiers, Oxfordshire’s director of IT, innovation, digital and transformation, said the council wants to build on the foundations it has laid over the last five years: “How do we become a true digital council? How do we harness the absolute potential of generative AI? There are a lot of pitfalls around that but we are going for it fairly ambitiously.”

Blackpool plans to recast data centres as low-carbon community assets

Blackpool Council is inviting expressions of interest in a demonstration of how data centres can move towards net zero carbon emissions, the council’s head of IT services Anthony Doyle told the conference. It is planning a 6,000 square foot data hall for liquid immersion cooled hardware that could halve initial electricity requirements. Surplus energy will then be used to power nearby businesses and homes through a district heat network.

Tony Doyle speaking at President's Conference 2024
Tony Doyle, Blackpool Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

The demonstrator is an early stage of Blackpool’s Silicon Sands project, a plan to redevelop 40 acres of brownfield land on the airport enterprise zone with low-carbon data centres. The plans take advantage of the nearby landing point of the CeltixConnect-2 fibre optic cable to Dublin and New York as well as planned grid connections for Irish Sea wind farms, a solar generation farm and battery capacity.

Doyle said that communities often oppose data centre plans as they soak up local power generation and produce waste heat. However, Silicon Sands would take advantage of abundant renewable energy production and help heat buildings such as the council-owned Sandcastle water park and new social housing. “If you could capture heat from data and put it into a district heat network, you could turn it into a community asset,” he said.

He added that Silicon Sands will focus on high-speed computing such as robotics, manufacturing and artificial intelligence (AI) which will require “near-premise computing” within a few miles of users to work effectively. “AI needs to be distributed, not just on a corridor around the M25,” Doyle said. Silicon Sands could provide near-premise services to the new National Cyber Force centre at Samlesbury in Lancashire, as well as users in Greater Manchester and Merseyside.

Brentwood and Rochford tackle cultural differences in partnership

Differences of culture have challenged two partnered Essex councils which share many staff and services, according to their joint chief executive. Jonathan Stephenson, who has led both Brentwood Borough Council and Rochford District Council since the partnership started in January 2022, said that Brentwood had a more entrepreneurial culture while Rochford preferred to cut costs. He added that “in some ways it was a perfect partnership” as the two organisations could learn from each other, but problems arose from some assuming that Stephenson would prefer managers from his original employer Rochford then calling him disloyal when he chose some Brentwood staff instead.

Jonathan Stephenson speaking at President's Conference 2024
Jonathan Stephenson, Brentwood Borough Council and Rochford District Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

The two councils do not share a border and remain formally separate but all senior managers now work across both organisations and most departments are merging. They retain two sets of councillors which means managers have to attend twice as many council meetings as previously. However, the partnership has cut around £1 million from joint budgets and improved resilience by increasing department sizes so there is greater cover for holidays and illness.

Establishing the partnership presented some specific technology challenges. Stephenson said the organisation spent several months talking to central government about whether it could have a new domain for what could be a temporary partnership, before realising it could use for email addresses without further permission.

To help bond teams across the two councils Stephenson organised charity walks in 2022 and 2023. He is now organising a 3 Peaks Challenge, supported by Socitm and other national organisations, which aims to raise £250,000 through participants walking the three Yorkshire peaks of Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough on 6 September this year. A further event on 18 January 2025 aims to get 1,000 people to walk from Hampton Court to Tower Bridge in London.

Swindon and AWS offer open-source Easy Read document producer

Swindon Borough Council and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have published open source code for a service that creates easy-to-read versions of documents at a tiny fraction of the manual cost. Simply Readable, developed by Swindon and AWS as an extension of a machine translation service covering 75 languages, uses Amazon’s Bedrock AI platform, Anthrophic’s Claude language model and Stability’s Stable Diffusion image generator to create documents in the Easy Read format with four or five sentences and images per page. It cuts the cost of producing Easy Read documents from around £120 a page to 7 to 10 pence.

Polina Shloido, local government account manager at AWS, said that a session in Swindon with people with learning disabilities helped develop the service: “We asked what would you like the images to look like, how should the text look?” One outcome was to avoid words with double meanings as these can be confusing.

Universities make case for local government collaboration

Universities can work with local authorities to support community discussions and support council staff in research they can use at work, according to speakers on a panel session. Rhiannon Jones, associate professor of civic practice at University of Derby, said the CivicLab centre she leads provides a forum for work with the local community. It is part of the university’s participation in the Civic University Network, set up in 2020 to support collaboration between higher education institutions and local public and voluntary sector organisations.

Shailen Popat, director of University of Birmingham’s MSc in public management, said one student sponsored by a council employer developed a formula for locating new schools as her dissertation work, and this is now used by the local authority. In a supporting blogpost, Popat writes that university courses can allow staff to reflect on their work in ways that are often not possible in the workplace.

Steal good ideas says North Yorkshire transformation director

Local authorities can use conferences to find ideas they can reuse, North Yorkshire Council’s director of transformation Robert Ling told delegates: “Come to things like this and steal good ideas,” he advised the audience. “We are all sovereign bodies but we have shared capabilities and we could do better on shared standards.” The council, which was formed in April 2023 from the area’s county and seven district councils, has adapted existing services including LocalGov Drupal for its website.

Robert Ling of North Yorkshire Council with Jessica Chambers of Silktide, speaking at President's Conference 2024
Jessica Chambers, Silktide with Robert Ling, North Yorkshire Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

Ling added that North Yorkshire can afford to provide a staff-supported post and telephone service for blue badge disabled parking applications because 93% of applicants use the online version. The council uses post and phone rather than libraries to provide the supported process given the long distances some would have to travel across a large rural area, Ling said: “You have got to think about all the channels through which people are engaged, not just digital.” He and his colleague Anne-Louise Arkle discussed their approach to service design in the latest issue of Socitm’s In Our View magazine.

Day one in brief

  • Public sector organisations should support their staff when they make mistakes, Ian Thomas, chief executive and town clerk of the City of London Corporation, told the event. “If I make a mistake, which I do, I just fess up to it,” he said. “If I can, as the chief executive and town clerk, then anybody else can.” A recent staff survey received a strong positive response when asking whether employees get helped by line managers when they make mistakes. “We promote this idea that in trying new things, innovating or prototyping new ideas, you are not always going to get it right,” Thomas added.
  • Socitm’s Leadership Academy courses can help both delegates and their organisations, Emma Macquarrie, strategic ICT project manager at Wiltshire Council, said during a session on the Socitm Institute. “I found my own voice and the confidence to actually use it, especially when it is essential to use it,” she said. “I learnt more about myself and the impact on other people and that has made me a much more effective coach, mentor and advocate.” Macquarrie, who has taken part in several Socitm courses including last autumn’s Empowering Women programme, added that they have helped improve her focus and achieve more through collaborative working and relationships.
  • Increasing digital connectivity has had differing impacts across England, according to Pye Nyunt, chief executive of Socitm partner company Impera Analytics. He said that work based on Impera’s Place Insight service found London generally enjoyed high levels of access to information, communications, personal freedom and choice but faced major challenges on living conditions. A cluster of mainly rural areas scored well on freedom, choice and environmental factors but suffered from poorer connectivity and education, while another cluster including most provincial cities and some suburban areas with strong connectivity were linked by poor health and education. “There isn’t an obvious north-south divide,” Nyunt added.
  • Generative AI services such as Microsoft’s Copilot can help improve accessibility for neurodivergent staff and those who struggle to get started on tasks, Kieran Johnston, an account technology strategist at the supplier, told the event. “It can improve people’s work and their ability to deliver on an even level with everybody else,” he said. The Copilot group within Microsoft’s Innovation and Collaboration Forum for UK local government, which involves more than 220 councils, has heard of one organisation which has identified more than 250 potential uses for the service: “Finding them is easy,” said Johnston, adding that many save staff time rather than money.

President’s Conference day two

Walsall plans town centre redevelopment to restore civic pride

Walsall Council is planning a new dental surgery and police station as well as a relocated theatre and concert venue to improve its town centre and help restore people’s pride in the area, executive director of resources and transformation Judith Greenhalgh told day two of the conference.

Judith Greenhalgh speaking at President's Conference 2024
Judith Greenhalgh, Walsall Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

In 2022, the council ran a survey which received more than 8,500 responses on what Walsall should look like by 2040. Residents were worried about knife crime, the state of the town centre, housing, job opportunities, green spaces and a lack of civic pride. “If you were to ask a person on the streets of Walsall what do you think of Walsall, the word they would use would probably begin with a c or an s and would have four letters,” Greenhalgh said. “There’s no real pride in Walsall and that’s quite heartbreaking.” The town centre has empty shops and run-down infrastructure: “It looks scruffy, it looks dated, it’s not a nice place to be particularly after dark,” she added.

With other local public sector organisations including emergency services, NHS bodies, further and higher education as well as Walsall Football Club, the council developed a borough plan and has won funding to regenerate the town centre. It has a focus on residential living, given the centrally-sited rail station is just 25 minutes from central Birmingham, that aims to encourage spending in the borough. Greenhalgh said the work considered specific data, including that 27% of five-year-olds have visible tooth decay and that the area’s population is ageing, the latter meaning the council has to consider both physical and digital access to services.

The average age of the council’s workforce is similarly increasing, presenting challenges to recruitment and retention, Greenhalgh said. “I am 52 years old next week and that puts me in the younger half of the workforce for Walsall,” she added.

Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS moves to cloud and quickfire service desk

Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust will have no data centre in its new Midland Metropolitan University hospital when it opens later this year, executive director for information technology and digital Martin Sadler told delegates.

Martin Sadler speaking at President's Conference 2024
Martin Sadler, Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust. Photo by Matt Horwood

The trust has set four principles that systems should be web based and platform independent, will link to the trust’s other systems and impose security checks only when required. Sadler said that the trust has written to all its software suppliers saying that if they do not provide applications as a service or through cloud-hosting they will be replaced, although the trust is helping some to make this shift.

Sadler said the trust answers service desk calls in an average of 37 seconds by having seven staff focused on clearing the queue each morning, with four moving to other tasks when this has been achieved. It measures a ‘combined wait’ time which starts when technology fails, to measure how networks, software and suppliers create problems as well as how quickly the service desk resolves them.

The trust runs an informatics ‘shop’ from where staff can collect computer peripherals just by providing their names and departments. Following the pandemic, one person requested 18 headsets for everyone in the department: “We said what’s your name, where do you work, would you like us to help you carry them back? Because no-one is going to be stupid enough to lose their job for stealing something worth £5,” Sadler said.

He outlined other projects including training an AI system to provide second opinions on radiology scans after a human radiologist takes a first look, something that could help reduce pressure on staff. The trust also tracks hospital wheelchairs with Sim cards, which has found one hidden in a cupboard by a porter to ensure he had a spare, another left in Oxford when a patient was discharged and another on a Birmingham scrapheap.

Tewkesbury uses low code development for customised software

Tewkesbury Borough Council has developed a staff interface for its human resources software, a planning application tracker and a multipurpose customer service system using low code development, associate director of IT, cyber and digital Joe Cole told delegates. “We couldn’t afford a big development team,” he said. “Using a low code platform means we can develop exactly what we need and we aren’t reliant on external development companies building systems they then have to maintain.”

Some of Tewkesbury’s low code systems work with existing software, with its MyHR suite designed to integrate with its legacy payroll and human resources software used by those departments. Report it, a customer service system used for 35 processes, is integrated with the in-cab technology used by its waste contractor Ubico so contact centre staff can see if a bin was not collected because it had not been placed out for collection. It has also used low code to build new services, including one to issue food vouchers for low-income families.

Early AI benefits prove elusive finds Socitm benchmarking

Just three of 10 local public services involved in Socitm’s small-scale trial of AI benchmarking have so far reported benefits, according to early results from the research. Socitm technical consultant Matthew Fraser said that none of the organisations sees AI as a disaster but they are at different stages, vary in attitudes to risk and governance, most are starting small and few are spending heavily. The biggest barriers to adoption are a lack of skilled staff, lack of understanding and shortage of money.

Mathew Fraser speaking at President's Conference 2024
Matthew Fraser, Socitm with Tracy Ledwidge, Coventry City Council. Photo by Matt Horwood

Coventry City Council, one of the three organisations that reported benefits, is nevertheless cutting its Microsoft Copilot licences from 300 to 100 after a three-month trial. Tracy Ledwidge, the city’s operational delivery manager, said staff like its ability to generate notes from meetings but it is difficult to find cashable savings. However, a short six-week pilot in children’s services found that generative AI could save staff a lot of time by generating case notes, chronologies and the contents of forms. The AI chronologies were often more accurate than those hand-crafted and on case notes, “the AI tool tidied up the language and pulled out points that they missed,” she said, meaning social workers could focus on what to do next.

Warps provide ‘safe space’ to discuss cybersecurity

Warps (warning, advice and reporting points) provide a “safe space” for local public services to talk about cybersecurity risks and breaches privately and respond to regional challenges, according to those involved in some of the groups which cover all of the UK.

Shelley Heckman, who works for Tameside Council and helps run the North West Warp, told delegates that its members sign non-disclosure agreements: “You can’t share unless you’re in a safe space, particularly if you’re sharing cyberbreaches and things you would not want in the public domain.” The group has helped local authorities in Cumbria as they split into two new unitaries, Cumberland Council and Westmorland and Furness Council, with Heckman saying that disaggregation can sometimes see cybersecurity get “lost in that process”.

Graham Jordan of Gateshead Council and the North East government Warp said the group is increasingly focused on the security of suppliers who could have an impact if they are attacked, even though they do not process public sector data or use its networks. Mark Brett, who supports several Warps, added that some are developing sector-specific advice with the Wales group releasing a training video on the impact of an email-based fraud on a small social care provider.