Join your nearest Empowering Women training (running in July and September only)

Event roundup: Sheffield national conference, 28 February 2024

A supplement to Socitm’s annual magazine, In Our View, this post covers Reimagining communities and places: a journey through data, technologies and service design, a one-day conference held in Sheffield on 28 February. Written by SA Mathieson

Vice-president’s welcome: In tough times we need to learn from each other 

Huw McKee
Huw McKee, Socitm vice-president and former president. Photo: Matt Horwood

This is my sixth year of being a vice-president, ending in three month’s time. I have had a brilliant time and it has made a huge difference not just to me but also for my team. We have fresh VPs in the room, so the future is bright.  

In Wales, it has been very, very tough and challenging over the last five, six or seven years, where we have had 7% or 10% cuts every year. My budget is down to 50% of what it was when I joined 10 years ago. Among English councils, more than half believe they will be bust in the next five years. It is a terrible time and that can be quite depressing, but that is not what today is about. 

The light at the end of the tunnel for us, Socitm and people here today, is trying to take advantage of how we can turn things around by working together and learning from others. We need to be working with partners, working together across councils and authorities, and maximising the information we have on the best technology that we can use to improve the services that we provide. 

Today is about reimagining communities and places and what journey we could be following using technologies to redesign. We are going to give you examples of where people have succeeded, where people are partnering and what possibilities we have to deliver improved and more efficient services to our customers.  

It is lovely to see the room full. We did think, will people come? They certainly have, which is fabulous to see. Having these sessions online does not really work in my opinion – you see people, you smile and wave on the screen, but you don’t actually network, talk and share experiences like we will do today. 

Huw McKee
Socitm vice-president and immediate past president, head of IT and digital transformation at Conwy Council 

[This is an edited version of Huw’s welcome to the event]

Talk about people not digital say panellists involved in transforming councils

Charlene Manning, Robert Ling and Julian Patmore at Socitm's national conference in Sheffield, February 2024
Charlene Manning, Robert Ling and Julian Patmore

Local authorities undergoing change need to focus on people rather than technology, according to one executive involved in merging several councils into one and another currently dissolving its shared services.

“With any project, the biggest challenge is also its greatest strength, its people,” said Robert Ling, director of transformation at North Yorkshire Council, a unitary formed in April 2023 from the county council of the same name and seven district councils. “We talk about technology and digital, which is a word I have personally come to loathe because I think it is such a barrier.”

He said the focus must be on people, as they can either enable or stop changes that improve services from happening. “Whether we call it human-centred design, customer-centred design or whatever, what we shouldn’t be doing is talking around technology and digital. They don’t do anything, they just enable you. It’s the human stories that excite people.”

Julian Patmore, head of operational services at Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, is working to split services currently shared by the two authorities. He said that some executives ask him to help them use Microsoft Teams in meetings or call him to ask for help using Word, rather than asking the helpdesk service or taking training provided.

“Digital… is a word I have personally come to loathe because I think it is such a barrier”

Robert Ling, North Yorkshire Council

“We wouldn’t accept people saying ‘I don’t do finance’ or ‘I don’t do HR’, so why do we accept that people won’t do digital? How do we get them on-board, how do we get them not scared,” he asked. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have set up change champion networks to help with this, which recently involved Patmore adding make-up to his online image through a Snapchat filter to encourage people to play with things.

Asked by Amazon Web Services’ business development manager Charlene Manning about hopes for the next three to five years, Patmore said he was excited about developing the use of artificial intelligence (AI). He recently used a generative AI service to draft 80% of a delivery plan. “That saved me a week of work,” he said, with every plan of this kind requiring a similar list of risks. “I find it difficult to start something. Once I have started something, that first sentence of a report or a document, I can do the rest.” By providing a starting point, he added that Microsoft’s Copilot generative AI service is making him much more productive.

“What is the point of writing a plan that AI could write?” replied Ling. “Technology, AI and smart places will enable us to do things quicker, faster, better. But I think it forces us to think about, what is the human interaction and the value that we add and where do the benefits sit?”

Ling added that while technology and digital can often make existing processes more efficient, they can allow organisations to avoid changing or scrapping these processes: “Why are you producing service plans if you can boil it down to seven headings on what you are going to do and have you done it?”

Rural areas need more than just infrastructure to go smart says campaigner

Photo of a stone cottage nestled into the landscape in Midgley, Halifax, UK, with fields stretching out across the hillside beyond it. Photo by Andrew Hall on Unsplash
Rural countryside in Halifax. Photo: Andrew Hall on Unsplash

Rural areas need help with awareness, knowledge and skills to take full advantage of digital technologies but support focuses largely on infrastructure, a campaigner for rural businesses told delegates.

Dr Peter Dewhurst, chair of membership organisation Business Peak District and until recently dean of faculty for the University of Derby’s Buxton campus, said that digital innovation tends to focus on ‘smart city’ urban areas while work in the countryside usually involves extending the reach of fast broadband.

He said that infrastructure improvements are needed with about 40% of rural premises in the East Midlands region including the Peak District able to access gigabit-capable connections compared with more than twice that in urban areas according to Ofcom research. But while infrastructure is required, it will not be sufficient to create smart rural areas.

Dewhurst said the belief that “if we get the infrastructure in place and everyone will come to play, use it and optimise it,” would prove unfounded. “In urban areas, you have got a population and business community that is switched on to that. In rural communities there is a lack of awareness, lack of knowledge and lack of skills.”

He said that some Nordic countries are taking a broader approach that addresses issues beyond infrastructure in rural areas. “There are lessons of best practice from around the world that we should be picking up and running with,” he said. “If we are going to optimise the opportunities to increase productivity and the life chances of people in rural communities, we have to do something,” such as working with companies building broadband infrastructure in rural areas.

North Yorkshire’s Robert Ling said that planning issues often hold back the introduction of faster connections in rural areas, particularly when new infrastructure is above ground rather than underground, although the latter may not be economic in the countryside. Dewhurst said the same issues come up across rural Britain: “You have to win the hearts and minds of local people. They don’t like poles.”

“In rural communities there is a lack of awareness, lack of knowledge and lack of skills”

Dr Peter Dewhurst, Business Peak District

Joint venture recruitment services allow innovation, says council-owned provider

Commercial Services Group, a Kent County Council-owned service provider for local authorities, is creating local jobs through its recruitment joint ventures, its commercial director told the event.

Steve Wilson said its ‘Connect2’ branded recruitment joint ventures in Dorset, Dudley, Hampshire, Luton and Surrey, along with its own Connect2Kent, have helped create 100 new jobs. The joint ventures, which are half-owned by each area’s local authority, take fees that would otherwise go to commercial providers and have returned £3 million to the public sector in the 2022/23 financial year.

The joint venture model also allows local authorities the freedom to influence pay levels and react quickly to events, Wilson said. They engaged 1,300 local residents to work in Covid-19 testing centres, Connect2Luton has helped to staff a Ukrainian reception centre and Connect2Kent has helped the county council and the Home Office find people to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

“Because it’s a council-owned service and not an outsourced model, it doesn’t have a rigid specification. You can uplift, flex, change, adapt as you go along and innovate,” said Wilson. Commercial Services Group also provides energy, procurement, IT, legal, education and human resources services.

London innovators pitch to local government 

View of city streets in London, UK with a red London bus in the foreground. Photo by Brodie from Burst.
View of a city street in London. Photo: Brodie from Burst

Five innovators, all supported by the Greater London Authority’s Challenge LDN open innovation challenge, told delegates about the services they can provide to local authorities. The following are edited extracts from their opening statements. 

SuperFi logo

“We identified there is a gap in the market, where people in early stages of financial distress really struggle to get access to suitable support. One of my best friends during the pandemic racked up credit card debt. He phoned one of the big debt charities and they effectively told him to call back when he had more debt. SuperFi is an easy to use mobile app that we work with councils and housing associations to provide access to their people who are just beginning to struggle. We help people maximise their income, reduce their outgoings and provide a digital safety net.” 

Tom Barltrop, co-founder and CEO, SuperFi  
Plinth logo

“About a year ago, when the cost of living crisis started to really bite, we noticed more and more people were turning up at local charities for support. Local authorities were saying they had all these cost of living programmes but knew not enough people were accessing these. The people going to charities don’t go to local authorities because ‘they just do bins’. What we did with part of the GLA funding was focus on using the data we had from charities about who was turning up and matching it with the people the local authorities knew about, so you can work out who is missing.”

Will Thompson, co-founder, Plinth 
CAD-HR logo

“We provide free legal services to migrant communities. In the course of providing these services we saw the struggles these communities have. But they are reluctant to access mainstream services, so we use organisations from within these communities to provide those services by providing the admin and management support. Our community safety net pillar targets people who have been in this country for more than 20 years but don’t have recourse to public funds and are too old or don’t have the social capital to go back home. We set up a safety net, a digital platform that provides mobile cash payments to people from within these groups.” 

Askia Warne, founder and director, CAD-HR
Mortar Works logo

“During the pandemic, we worked with east London local authorities to identify older residents living alone and at risk of isolation, helping to co-ordinate doorstep engagement activities for them. On the back of that, we built up a service design framework called Hoop’d, a modular framework that allows us to deliver service design and specific human-centric solutions to support the accessibility of the front door into services. We have been backed by the Local Government Association in the development of a digital inclusion triage tool led by Salford City Council, our main development partner, as well as East Riding, Worcestershire and Waltham Forest.” 

George Unsworth, director, Mortar Works 
Matching Minds logo

“I started MatchingMind in 2020 based on my own experience. I needed mental health support, I went to a counselling directory, they had 20,000 names, I looked at the first 20, couldn’t decide and shut my computer down. Finally, I found someone who wasn’t quite right, I found someone else – it took me two or three tries. As a health economist, I thought this is pretty inefficient. If Netflix can help you find a movie which is right for you so you don’t waste an afternoon, how come something as important as mental health is just left out there?” 

Bela Prasad, co-founder, MatchingMind 

More information on each innovator is available on the event’s webpage by clicking on the agenda’s Innovation Panel tab. 

Bee Positive about alternative ways into IT says Empowering Women group 

Bee Positive logo

Organisations should tell stories about women working in technology to inspire more to apply, the latest cohort of Socitm’s Empowering Women course told the event. 

The group, based in Manchester, drew on the city’s worker bee symbol to create a logo and slogan for a planned social media campaign aimed at attracting more women to apply for in public sector IT roles. 

Given the low percentages of girls and women taking science and technology subjects in schools and then computer science degrees, they recommended the use of stories showing alternative ways into IT careers. 

Group member Lisa Pearce recently left teaching after 27 years to work on technology for Essex Fire and Rescue Service, where she has helped develop a new intranet and a decision-making dashboard. “A public sector role has given me the mental challenge, job security and sense of purpose and pride that I desire,” Pearce told the session, adding she would advise others to “be brave – you do have transferrable skills and are never too old to change”.  

Lucie Warburton was furloughed from a previous IT job during the pandemic and used technology in the distribution of food parcels as a volunteer. This gave her the impetus to apply to join Blackpool Council as an IT apprentice, where she has been studying for a degree. She described this as “the hardest thing I have ever done” given she is also working full-time. “Working in IT has made me realise I enjoy it – it’s not just like The IT Crowd,” she said.  

Nations and regions news will be published separately