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In Our View, issue 38

Where inspiration strikes local government

Authors and contributors: Nadira Hussain, SA Mathieson, Carol Williams
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Socitm In Our View, issue 38

This issue of Socitm’s membership magazine, produced for the June 2023 President’s Conference in Brighton, focuses on inspirational work by local public services. Chief executive Nadira Hussain introduces Socitm Inspire, the society’s new institute. The magazine includes coverage of digital twin projects, New Zealand’s plans for regional collaboration, recent webinars on accessibility and research on recruitment and retention. The Personal View column is written by Carol Williams, a director of Walsall Council and Socitm vice-president.

Illustration showing an elderly lady being cared for in her home by a nurse and paramedic

President’s welcome: Proud of an inspirational year, now let’s strengthen those connections

For those of you attending, welcome to Socitm’s annual President’s Conference which I hope you will find inspiring, informative and enjoyable. I would like to congratulate Mark Lumley, who will take over from me as president during the conference, and wish him well for the next 12 months.

I am ever so proud to have been president of Socitm and of what we have achieved over the last year, which seems to have flown by. The society is gaining charitable status, something which will be of great benefit to both the organisation and its members, and is launching Socitm Inspire, our amazing new institute to support you in collaborating and learning from each other.

To set the theme of inspiration, this issue’s main feature covers some of the projects Socitm has highlighted over the last 12 months through awards and events. These include Liverpool persuading sponsors to fund broadband and devices for families across the city, Wigan encouraging its staff to innovate in helping citizens, the South London Partnership protecting vulnerable residents with home sensors, Bradford connecting places and people and research by our recent Top Talent cohort, drawn mostly from councils in Wales.

Chief executive Nadira Hussain outlines Socitm Inspire. Vice-president Carol Williams writes about how IT has moved from being what she calls a dark art and the pride she takes in her work at Walsall Council. And we discuss how local authorities can compete for technology staff, such as through flexible working and easing the application process, with input from another of our vice-presidents Matt Lewis, chief operating officer of SRS Wales.

Our first face-to-face event of the 2020s, a year ago in Cardiff, reminded us how important and how much fun it is to connect with other Socitm colleagues. As I said in the annual report’s introduction, I encourage you to do so through our regional committees, events, webinars, digitally and over the next two days in Brighton.

Huw McKee
Socitm president

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News: Birmingham creates environment-focused digital twin

Birmingham City Council has become the latest local authority to use digital twinning, through involvement in a project that will set up an online virtual model of the east of the city.

On 16 May, the city’s cabinet approved its participation in the two-year Diatomic (digital innovation transformative change) project, which will build a virtual model of an area of east Birmingham that will be equipped with sensors to gather real-time data on pollution, traffic and other environmental issues.

The Innovate UK West Midlands Innovation Accelerator is providing £6.1 million of funding for the Diatomic project, which aims to help the city achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions and improve services for citizens, with the council receiving £1.035 million to fund its work. The project also involves Aston, Birmingham and Birmingham City universities, the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce and the lead partner Connected Places Catapult.

“This is a great way of helping us tackle the big challenges facing the city, seeing what works and where the problems are using real-time data; that way we can invest intelligently, making sure we can be even more confident of results that will help our residents,” said Cllr Jayne Francis, a member of the city’s cabinet.

A report prepared for the councillors said the project should let small local businesses and organisations spot opportunities in clean energy, retrofitting buildings and health innovation. This should help to develop the local economy and boost innovation in the city’s procurement work. It should also contribute to Birmingham’s efforts to move the city to net zero emissions.

“This is a great way of helping us tackle the big challenges facing the city”

Cllr Jayne Francis, Birmingham City Council

Birmingham City Council recently published Our future city, a plan that would double the city’s green spaces, cycling and walking routes, as well as aiming to create tens of thousands of new jobs and homes.
Birmingham joins several other local authorities that have announced digital twin projects. Calderdale and Warrington have both recently announced they will set up models of buildings and energy systems in their areas with supplier IES, which is already used by Scottish authorities including Perth and Kinross as well as Stirling.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich has used a digital twin model to simulate energy saving measures in social housing and the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership for urban data. Bradford is developing a digital twin with the city’s university as part of broader digital plans (see main feature). Transport for London and Highways England have also made use of the technology.

Read more:
Socitm article on augmented reality and digital twins

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News: New Zealand considers regional collaboration for digital local government

New Zealand’s local authorities could deliver and operate digital services regionally, if a model proposed by the Association of Local Government Information Management (ALGIM) is adopted by a national review of local government.

In a submission to the review, ALGIM proposed using the country’s 16 geographical regions as a starting point for collaboration between the country’s local authorities, with an alternative where like-minded councils across the country such as those focused on growth could work together.

The association, which plays a similar role in New Zealand to Socitm’s in the UK, presented the model as a way to strengthen local authorities’ digital work by increasing its scale, without losing sight of the areas they serve. It would see groups of councils form regional digital teams, potentially with a single chief information officer. These could be constructed as shared services or could see staff working for the councils involved collaborating, but either way resources and specialist staff would be shared.

The model would be managed through operationally-focused regional digital plans that would cover key activities, costs, funding and workplans, informed by a National Digital Strategy for Local Government that the association would help develop.

“ALGIM believes strongly that this digital future state must be developed by those who have a deep understanding of the challenges, opportunities and a strong connection to their communities’ needs,” it said in its submission to the review. “In line with the panel’s aspirations, it promotes a highly collaborative approach by high-performing teams that are connected to the needs and priorities of their communities, and who work together to deliver operational services and programmes of work.”

“There are already strong relationships within regions. Councils know their neighbours”

Mike Manson, ALGIM

ALGIM chief executive Mike Manson said that such teams would provide opportunities for local government ICT staff to develop their careers without having to leave the areas they live in and would build on existing collaboration. “There are already strong relationships within regions. Councils know their neighbours, people work together on some aspects already,” he told a webinar that discussed the plans last December.

Justin Bagust, chief information officer of Timaru District Council in the South Island’s Canterbury region, told the same webinar that the model would help smaller authorities provide better levels of service. “It’s about creating a platform where you can bring your neighbours and your friends along with you on the journey,” he said.

News: Website accessibility work helps everyone, webinar hears

Improving the accessibility of web sites can help everyone using them, not just those with a disability, Rob Helsby of web design agency Cantarus told a Socitm webinar on 15 May. “Accessible design really does equal good design that benefits everyone,” he told the event, part of Socitm’s Accessibility Week series. For example, subtitles allow people to watch videos in public places without sound, high levels of contrast make websites easier to read outdoors and easier to use online forms help everyone and can increase their take-up.

Helsby, Cantaras’ head of experience design, recommended a checklist provided by the A11y Project and a set of tools provided by Stark including plug-ins for many browsers and design programs that check for accessibility issues. He noted that all public bodies have been required to meet version 2.1 of the W3C web content accessibility guidelines since September 2020, although added that it makes sense to treat this as a continuous process rather than a one-off project: “Try to go for what’s achievable, what’s doable for your organisation,” he said.

The webinar included a game of ‘accessibility bingo’ using a web-page on the history of Springfield City Council, the fictional home of the Simpsons cartoon family, with a number of accessibility issues (see simplified version below). Helsby said this could be improved by avoiding angled text, strengthening colour contrasts, using larger font text with around 60-70 characters per line and making the navigation clearer.

All Accessibility Week webinars are available on watch online.

Example of a council website with poor accessibility
D’oh! My council’s website could be more accessible

News: Jisc unpacks Edubox to connect isolated students

Education technology provider Jisc is piloting wireless hotspot hardware that makes it easy for local authorities and other organisations to give students secure and reliable internet access, the organisation told a Socitm accessibility webinar on 17 May.

Edubox, a mobile data router that just needs to be plugged in to provide access to Jisc’s Eduroam network, is designed for use in locations where students spend time away from their institution. Locations so far include local authority libraries, parks and gardens, an airport and an equine centre.

Jane Parry, librarian at Powys Teaching Health Board, said the organisation is trialling Eduboxes at Bronllys hospital, a rural location near the Black Mountains with medical student accommodation. They used to complain about poor internet access, but the new hardware has made it easy for them to connect.

News: We need better connections,
speakers tell Cardiff conference

Public services increasingly rely on people’s internet connectivity, NHS Wales’ digital chief told Socitm’s national conference at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on 25 April.

“I would argue things like broadband and access to 5G is almost a public health issue,” Mike Emery, chief digital and innovation officer for health and social care at NHS Wales, said. “If people haven’t got that infrastructure and we increasingly make services digitised, they are excluded.”
He told the event that options for addressing this include promoting cheaper social broadband tariffs available to those on benefits, doctors prescribing tablet computers and helping patients, carers and staff to make good use of technology.

Emery said that public sector users are going to have to be “very savvy” in how they use artificial intelligence language services such as ChatGPT, which he recently asked questions about health and data only to get back what he described as “a very racist joke regarding Wales,” based on material found online.

He spoke from personal experience about the importance of joining up technology and data for the individual. His daughter, who has epilepsy and autism, was once prescribed a drug to which she was allergic by a hospital doctor despite this being in her GP record. The risk was avoided only because her family read the ingredients.

The topic was addressed by a panel discussion on the need for local government to combine and share its data with other organisations. Pye Nyunt, former head of insight for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, said that early in the pandemic in 2020 it combined its social care client data with the local NHS clinical commissioning group’s patient data. By doing so it was able to identify and start supporting most local people who qualified for shielding, several weeks before central government passed on its official list.

The conference, chaired by Socitm’s outgoing president Huw McKee, also included advice on cutting carbon emissions by using computer hardware for longer and a group presentation on hybrid working by the latest Top Talent cohort (see main feature).

News: Innovation event opens lid on Derby’s in-bin sensors

Derby City Council is using built-in sensors to manage street and park bins more efficiently, two of its staff told an online event on digital innovation held by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) and Socitm on 29 March.

The sensors report how full bins are through Sim cards connected to a cloud-based service, allowing them to be emptied when they are nearly full rather than overflowing, reducing complaints and ensuring people can dispose of rubbish responsibly.

“Bins are really important to us, because they are the public doing the right thing,” Samantha Kelly, the city’s Streetpride service manager for street cleansing, said.

Socitm’s director of policy and research Martin Ferguson warned that while such Internet of Things technologies present opportunities to improve how people live, they also provide new options for cyber attackers. The event, focused on local authorities in Northern Ireland, also heard from education technology provider Jisc about how business email compromise is increasingly used to attack organisations.

Read the latest issues of In Our View: In Our View, issue 37 (Focus), on April’s Cardiff conference and In Our View, issue 36 (Focus), covering March’s digital innovations event. Full coverage of the President’s Conference will be published on the resource hub later in June. 
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Nations and regions news

Scotland

Glasgow City Council has supported the use of an app, designed to let property owners organise common repairs in shared tenement buildings, that was originally commissioned by Edinburgh City Council.

Wales

Ceredigion County Council is using virtual reality headsets to help train social care staff in adverse childhood experiences and trauma with the aim of helping users to understand events from a child’s point of view.
bit.ly/3BtaZKo

Northern Ireland

Fermanagh and Omagh District Council was among organisations across the UK and Ireland affected by a cyber attack on Evide Impact, which holds personal data of those taking part in its Aspire local employability initiative.

Republic of Ireland

Tipperary County Council said that newly-announced work by wholesale fibre broadband operator SIRO to connect more than 9,000 properties in Thurles, Nenagh and Tipperary over the next year will support the area’s economic growth.

North-east England

North of Tyne Combined Authority has led a government-funded project to install 5G signal boosters in around 350 sites including council offices, libraries and lampposts in Northumberland and Tyneside.

Yorkshire and the Humber

Leeds City Council has supported a test of a satellite-mounted thermal imaging camera to see how much heat houses in the city are losing, which could be used to target support for property retrofitting.

North-west England

Liverpool City Council saw more than 15,000 new direct debits for council tax set up last year online and is sending reminders to pay through text messages and emails with QR codes with the aim of improving its collection rate.

East Midlands

West Northamptonshire Council staff will discuss the authority’s approaches to the future of libraries, assistive technology and digital marketing as part of the Merged Futures 5 conference held at the University of Northampton on 30 June.

West Midlands

Shropshire Council must respond to its outstanding Freedom of Information requests within six months and publish an action plan to mitigate future delays, the Information Commissioner’s Office said in an enforcement notice.

East of England

Cambridgeshire County Council is supporting a trial in the city by the Greater Cambridge Partnership of software that aims to apply artificial intelligence to camera output to predict when people will want to cross the road, reducing waiting times.

South-east England

Surrey County Council has contracted with supplier Connected Kerb to establish hundreds of electric vehicle charging points across the county then support them for 15 years from installation.

South-west England

Gloucestershire County Council will open a digital learning space in Cheltenham with free facilities including an immersive reality room as well as training and support, with funding from the government delivered by Arts Council England.

London

Hackney Council has taken on around 50 apprentices in digital roles since 2018 in order to build a pipeline of skilled specialists, according to strategic director Rob Miller.

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Main feature: Where inspiration strikes local government

Councils are using sponsorship to set up digital connections while using technology and staff innovation to improve people’s lives and keep them safe

Local authorities tend to get noticed when things go wrong or arguments break out. They get less attention when they get things right, even when this involves innovative use of new technology, collaboration with other organisations or better use of their workforce. But without sharing examples of inspiring work, it is harder for public sector organisations to improve what they do.

Socitm Inspire, introduced by chief executive Nadira Hussain, is designed to share ‘what works’, something that is long-established within Socitm through its awards, events and publications including In Our View. “We aim to take our members a stage further on the ‘what works’ journey, by engaging them in peer-to-peer exchanges, enabling them to transfer, adapt and adopt inspiring examples to suit local priorities and circumstances,” says Martin Ferguson, Socitm’s policy and research director.

Liverpool connects with its sponsors

The value of sharing examples can be seen through the projects the society has highlighted over the last 12 months. Last year’s President’s Conference, Socitm’s first face-to-face event of this decade, saw Liverpool City Council’s Get Connected programme win an award for best digital inclusion initiative. The programme is based on a pledge by the council “to provide free home broadband for children and families in or at risk of digital poverty, to promote digital inclusion,” specifically that all families with children eligible for free school meals should have a broadband connection. This is grounded in the city’s policy on equality, which has providing accessible information and services as one its six objectives.

Liverpool has involved several companies and organisations in delivering Get Connected through providing funding, services or equipment. Sponsors of free connections for families include technology suppliers 8×8 (communication management) and Liquid Logic (social care software) and O2 has provided plug-and-use mi-fi equipment. The project provides access to free digital training including Barclays’ Digital Wings courses, the Good Things Foundation’s Learn My Way service and material from Stay Safe Online and the NSPCC.

In October, the London Grid for Learning (LGfL), a charitable trust which provides technology to education including broadband to 73 Liverpool schools, donated 590 new Chromebooks to families in the city. “Working in partnership with organisations like LGfL means that our ambition of getting all school pupils digitally connected starts to become a reality and these devices are a great example of the council working hard with our suppliers to obtain social value for our residents,” said Liverpool’s cabinet member for education and skills Tom Logan.

LGfL’s donation is part of its Bridge the Divide project, which has similar aims to the city’s Get Connected work. It is a charity, but many companies also have ‘social value’ programmes that aim to benefit society. Social value may be motivated by altruism, staff motivation, public relations or to help win public sector contracts with social value weighting, but Liverpool shows how local authorities can tap into such work to support their own objectives.

Liverpool City Council’s award at President’s Conference, June 2022 (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Wigan’s Deal for innovative staff

Inspiring work can take place between individuals as well as across a city. In November, Wigan Council’s director of digital, leisure and wellbeing James Winterbottom told Socitm’s national conference in Manchester about a runner with early-stage dementia, who had forgotten where he lived while on a run, leading to him being taken home by the police. They advised him to stop running but this affected him badly, leading his wife to contact the council for help. Rather than setting up respite care the Wigan social worker arranged for him to start running again with the help of a local volunteer she found through the local community centre’s manager. This led to a recovery in the man’s mental and physical health based on what he loved doing – as well as costing the council nothing.

Winterbottom told the event that this is an example of how Wigan encourages staff to take the lead in solving problems, as part of ‘The Deal’ between the council and residents to create a better borough. “You’ve got the permission to innovate, think differently,” he said. “You won’t be slaughtered if you make a mistake. Not everything will work, but we need to find different and creative solutions to the challenges that are in front of us.”

“Not everything will work, but we need to find different and creative solutions to challenges”

James Winterbottom, Wigan Council

He said that chief executive Alison Mckenzie-Folan supports this culture by meeting all new starters and holding regular meetings with small groups. Employees who did not have digital logins previously were given these during the pandemic so they could take part in such meetings through Microsoft Teams. “A lot of people join Wigan because they’ve heard about this different way of working,” Winterbottom told the event. “You walk into the reception at the town hall and people comment on how it feels a bit different, the vibe of the place.”

South London senses greater safety

In some cases, local authorities can provide inspiration by working together, in some cases letting them make crucial interventions to help people. The South London Partnership’s InnOvaTe programme has installed in-home IoT sensors in hundreds of homes. In one case, a carer was alerted to a sharp decline in activity from a woman living in a Sutton Housing Partnership property. Receiving no answer to phone calls and knocks on the door, her care team entered the property to find her slumped in a chair and unable to communicate or move. They called an ambulance, six days before she would have received her next scheduled visit from the district nursing team. “I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t got that alert when we did,” the resident’s independent living officer said.

Socitm successfully nominated the InnOvaTe programme for the Linked Organisation of Local Authority ICT Societies (LOLA) international project of the year award last autumn. The partnership involves five London boroughs, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Richmond upon Thames and Sutton, working together on areas including economic recovery and integrating health and social care. The InnOvaTe programme, which ran from October 2019 to March 2023, used a £4 million budget to establish a multi-purpose Internet of Things platform covering a range of uses including air quality by roads, water levels where there are flood risks and sensors in vulnerable residents’ homes. It considered more than 140 ideas and put 43 of these into operation with Essex University evaluating the work and has provided the partnership with much improved data in areas including road air quality and traffic.

Nadira Hussain, who travelled to New Zealand to speak at the ALGIM conference which hosted the LOLA award, said that the South London Partnership was an easy one to pick. “It is so diverse and wide-reaching in its aspirations to make a difference across the places of the participating councils,” she wrote in a blogpost. It also showed the benefits of sharing good work, both nationally and internationally, she added – one of the main reasons for establishing Socitm Inspire.

In announcing the award chief executive of ALGIM Mike Manson said: “This project stood out as one in which several councils have collaborated successfully together to make innovative use of technologies and data, saving lives and making a real impact in their local communities.”

South London Partnership’s award at ALGIM conference, November 2022

Bradford makes tracks to new connections

In March, an online event co-presented by Socitm and the Association for Public Service Excellence heard about City of Bradford Council’s work to set up gigabit speed broadband across its district, make better use of data and fight digital exclusion. The city is encouraging both fixed and mobile broadband providers to set up services by giving access to its own ducts and cables, both in the city centre and along the Keighley and Worth Valley heritage railway. Its data-focused plans include Virtual Bradford, a digital twin of the city set up with the University of Bradford for planning, citizen engagement and other purposes.

Like Liverpool, Bradford is working with Good Things Foundation on digital exclusion with people in the city having received 1,700 Sim cards that provide free data, texts and calls as part of the foundation’s National Databank project. Bradford has realised that people of all ages need help in using technology: “Assumptions are made that older people can’t use technology, younger people can,” digital inclusion programme manager Sharon Sanders told the event, but it found that some parents didn’t want their children to use technology provided to them during the pandemic as they didn’t understand it. As a result, Bradford is planning to run digital skills sessions for parents as part of its summer holiday programmes for children.

Josh Hadley, Jeff Smith, Nita Sparkes, Elis Jones, Matthew Hensham, Dan Hunt and Socitm’s leadership programme manager Aidan Matthews
Top Talent cohort at Cardiff national conference, April 2023

Welsh council staff work on where to work

Many inspiring projects involve empowered staff or clever technology. Socitm’s Top Talent leadership training programme draws on both, as was shown when the society returned to Cardiff in April for a national conference. The new Top Talent cohort, which included members from Isle of Anglesey County Council, Neath Port Talbot Council and Vale of Glamorgan Council, delivered their findings on recruitment and retention to the event. They have also published a written report which covers topics including staff welfare, productivity, technological infrastructure and security, education and testing.

As part of their well-received presentation, Neath Port Talbot’s Nita Sparkes said: “You are going to have to give your staff a bit more trust in this area and stop micromanaging.” She may have been talking specifically about hybrid working, but many of the inspiring projects Socitm has highlighted over the last year have relied on local authority employees finding better ways to serve their communities.

Welcome to Socitm Inspire, our new home

Our new institute is part of our evolution to become Socitm 2.0, says chief executive Nadira Hussain

We are launching our institute, Socitm Inspire, at this year’s President’s Conference in Brighton. It’s a privilege to have Sam Smith, Socitm’s president from 2020 to 2022, joining as its director from 17 July. We know we have to evolve from Socitm now, a responsive organisation, to Socitm 2.0, one that is current and offers greater value to its members in what continue to be challenging times for the sector. It’s the Blockbuster scenario – we will wither on the vine if we do not remain relevant to you.

There are two big things we want Socitm Inspire to do: help you improve organisational and place-based outcomes and continue to create and support communities that will help you share, learn and grow. I see the institute as our new home, with our individual services as its rooms and our communities that enable networking, sharing and collaboration as the roof.

Socitm has previously structured itself around discrete products and services: Lead, Inform, Improve, Include and Share. Over the last two and a half years through our improved engagement efforts, we have listened to you and responded accordingly by designing the institute as a one-stop shop where you can access all our assets, resources and learning and development capabilities to aid improvement and innovation.

Additionally, we are updating the website to reflect the changes that we have made through the establishment of the institute. This will replace terminology based on individual services with clearly-named work areas. ‘Lead’ becomes learning and development, ‘Inform’ is now research, policy and innovation, ‘Improve’ becomes benchmarking and ‘Include’ is referred to as equality, diversity and inclusion. Instead of ‘Share’ the website will include a calendar of our events and we are simplifying the whole site to improve the user experience and make navigation easier.

We will also refocus some of these work areas. Policy, research and innovation will be based on ‘what works’, offering proven methodologies, tools, case studies and templates that have worked elsewhere so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Learning and development will continue to help you acquire skills and capabilities to work as leaders in ongoing turbulent times. We also aspire to enhance our benchmarking capability and offer new areas in the near future including data services. Socitm Advisory will continue as a separate company providing consultancy services.

A key unique offer is creating communities where people can come together, talk and share – the roof of our house. We have an inherent capability to provide opportunities to collaborate and network in the communities of interest we have created. This extends to the regional forums of local meetings, our national events and our growing alumni community, who represent our aspiring talent pipeline.

Socitm is also turning itself into a charity, through which we believe we can attract more funding but also deliver greater social value and public good. We have always had these values at our heart and achieving this status formalises our ambition.

These changes are the start of evolving Socitm, with the vision of creating a unique single place to offer real practical guidance, tools and to take our members beyond what works. The institute will give members access to resources, horizon scanning, thought leadership, insights and network that will help adapt and deliver successful outcomes through unlocking untapped potential in organisations and places. Additionally, it will provide access to capabilities to enable informed decision making; connections with peers you can learn from; and the opportunity to upskill your workforce to deliver transformation at pace and scale.

We know that Socitm has to remain current, responsive and fit for purpose. We are making these changes based on listening and responding to your needs. We are keen to be the society that can tell you what works and apply the lessons learnt itself.

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Research view: Why flexibility is your friend in recruiting and keeping staff

Local government can compete for technology staff by allowing flexible and hybrid working, collaborating on recruitment and making it easier to apply, writes SA Mathieson

Most organisations find it challenging to recruit and retain technology and digital specialists. However, the public sector has particular problems. All sectors require technologists but some of the most profitable such as financial services are particularly dependent on them to operate and have the ability to pay what is required to secure the people they need. The ability to carry out many such roles remotely means that specialists can increasingly take work anywhere in the world, meaning that – for example – a local authority may increasingly have to compete with global technology companies for staff, including in areas with relatively few high-paying private sector employers.

A report published by the House of Lords Public Services Committee in July 2022 described the public service workforce as “facing a crisis” as a result of significant staff shortages and low morale, with employers not doing enough to make careers attractive, and experiencing “considerable difficulty” in recruiting. In technology roles and other specialisms, the committee heard from witnesses that the public sector cannot compete with some parts of private sector on pay, so should look more creatively on other benefits including pensions and flexible working.

Becoming more flexible

Perhaps the area where individual public sector employers have greatest control is on flexible working, both in terms of location and in other aspects. The First Division Association, the trade union for senior civil servants, told the House of Lords committee that “if the public sector is to compete with the private sector it must offer flexibility and a form of hybrid working”. Other witnesses said that flexible working can lead to significant increases in applications from women and disabled people, helping to broaden the pool of potential applications.

The most obvious type of flexible working is remote working, normally from home. Millions of employees were forced to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, but in many cases found they prefer working this way either some or all the time, despite bosses’ reservations. In general, employees seem to be keener on home working than employers.

As well as location, flexible working can include compressed hours, four-day weeks, overtime for those willing to work extra hours or job-share arrangements. ‘Flexible retirement’, allowing older people to work part-time, may have particular benefits in keeping experienced staff in the workforce and attracting those from other sectors. Private sector employers may be less willing, or in some cases less able, to provide as wide a range of flexibility as the public sector, providing a competitive edge.

Chart - Where people work by age and income
Source: Office for National Statistics survey, September 2022 to January 2023

Hybrid working in hubs

Central government departments are increasingly offering flexibility in digital-related jobs, although usually in relatively limited ways. A February 2023 search of the government’s Civil Service Jobs website for roles whose titles included the word ‘digital’ found that 602, 84% of the 720 total, were tagged with ‘flexible working’, up from 77% when the same query was carried out in October 2022. ‘Job share’ appeared as a tag for 432 (60%), although just 74 were tagged ‘compressed hours’, 36 with ‘homeworking’, three with ‘term time working’ and none with ‘contracted home worker’.

Common ways to offer flexible working include letting successful candidates chose a base location from a list of corporate offices, such as the seven digital hubs run by the Department for Work and Pensions in Birmingham, Blackpool, Leeds, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, along with hybrid working with staff working remotely for part of each week. While not quite allowing staff to live a digital nomad lifestyle, this approach does open access to people who are not willing or cannot afford to move to within commuting distance of a single office location.

Money: the main problem, not the only one

Sam Hall, until November 2022 the chief digital officer for Welsh local government before moving to Digital Health and Care Wales, says that local government IT and digital services currently have huge recruitment problems at all levels, including the most junior in some roles. Money is the main problem: “We want 10 years experience but we are offering graduate pay,” she says. Overall, she thinks that local authorities will need to reconsider what they pay technologists and data specialists. “It is hard, but you’ve got to challenge the pay structure and acknowledge that the world has gone digital and that costs more up front, but can deliver savings and efficiencies longer term,” she says.

“You’ve got to challenge the pay structure and acknowledge that the world has gone digital”

Sam Hall, former chief digital officer for Welsh local government

Matt Lewis, chief operating officer of collaborative ICT service SRS Wales and a Socitm vice-president, says that those who leave the organisation are typically mid-career staff aged 35 to 45 who are paid between £35,000 to £50,000 – but then increase this by £15,000 to £20,000 by moving jobs. He says that it is not too difficult to recruit people at lower grades and develop them, but that SRS Wales loses senior staff as fast as it can recruit them.

Through exit interviews, SRS Wales has found that higher pay is not the only reason that people move – and although Matt says it is an important one, local authorities do not have the financial resources to match what is on offer elsewhere. One major reason is that at present anyone who wants to earn more than around £50,000 will have to start line managing people, and some technologists do not want to do this.

How councils could collaborate

Matt believes that local authorities should collaborate to recruit mid-career staff. Councils typically advertise vacancies on their own websites; Matt says that a technology jobs portal for all of Wales’ 22 local authorities would make them easier to find. Similarly, local authorities could run sector-wide job fairs (either face-to-face or online) like those held by major employers including the ONS and use a standard career path framework to describe jobs, making it easier for candidates to understand roles.

Authorities should also make the application process easier, he adds. SRS Wales has to ask applicants to fill in a standard form with 22 questions and 12 pages when blank, while other employers can use online services such as Indeed that allow those who have uploaded a CV to apply for roles with a few keystrokes.

This is an edited version of the overview and two of the viewpoints from ‘Transforming recruitment and retention’, a report published in March 2023 and available to Socitm members and partners.

Listen to the Socitm Says podcast on the report

Personal view: From dark art to pride in digital transformation

Walsall Council director and Socitm vice-president Carol Williams on the privilege of having a job that helps to solve people’s problems

After leaving school at 16 to start her IT career in the private sector, Carol moved to local government, working for what became Telford and Wrekin Council. She supported the technology transition to unitary status and managed the council’s end user computing service. In 2007 Carol moved to Walsall Council as head of IT and is now director for transformation and digital, responsible for digital and technology services, transformation and change and information governance. She is also Walsall’s senior information risk owner.

Q. How did you start working in the public sector?

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work with technology throughout all stages in my career over the past 30 years. I began my career working with monolithic mainframe computers and have seen the cyclical way technology continues to evolve, including the introduction of personal computers to improve productivity during the 1980s and 1990s.

I was introduced to computing, as it was called back then, quite by chance. I left school at 16 and was offered a job as business apprentice in a manufacturing organisation. Spending time in each department gave me a great insight into what staff need to make their jobs effective and how the processes and systems they use work together. I was in the right place at the right time when new IT systems were being implemented. This great opportunity combined with my inquisitive and logical nature attracted me, so towards the end of my apprenticeship I moved to the technology department full time to help implement new ways of working. From an early age I was hooked.

IT back then was a ‘dark art’ with not many women attracted to this type of work. It was primarily seen as an extension to engineering and this compounded the myth that you had to be good at maths to do this type of work. An opportunity arose to work in local government and I was interested in seeing the difference between private and public organisations. I supported Telford’s transition to a unitary authority ensuring continuity of services through transfer of data, processes and systems. I also led the technology transformation programme for the authority to introduce new and aligned technologies.

In 2007 I moved to Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council as head of ICT with a focus on developing a technology strategy for the organisation with a long-term vision for improving customer services, empowering employees and achieving efficiencies in terms of streamlining processes. Two years ago I became director for transformation and digital, my dream job.

Q. What does your job involve?

I am privileged to be doing a role I genuinely love and believe it is making a difference to the customers we serve in the borough. My job involves mainly talking with people and helping them to problem solve! How brilliant is that. Since the pandemic, I split my time between working from home, which gives me thinking time and space to write, and being in the office, which is great for collaborative working, problem solving and team building. The key tenets of my role are to enable the council to deliver its vision of reducing inequalities and maximising potential – this applies to our residents, businesses and our key assets, our staff.

The council’s digital strategy echoes these aspirations and everything we do at Walsall aligns to three Proud promises: improving services to customers, empowering our staff to do the very best they can and delivering efficiencies through improved processes and systems. Through the delivery of Walsall’s transformation programme my role is to maintain drive and grip on change to show clear progress against the three Proud promises.

Data is key to any organisation making informed decisions and part of my work is to support and enable the council to use data and insights to help shape its future ways of working. Embedding a culture for continuous improvement is the only way an organisation can continue to iterate and improve. Our staff are key to this and I am always heartened to hear success stories and achievements.

Often we don’t shout about our successes in the public sector and one of my priorities as vice-president is that we use Socitm and the fantastic resources it has available to share and learn, so that we can all accelerate our progress and deliver great customer services.

Carol Williams with Midlands region committee members
Carol Williams with Midlands region committee members Dave Sanderson (secretary), Andrew Tromans (deputy chair) and Tony Colson (chair)

Q. What do you see as highlights from your current role?

My current role allows me to see into all aspects and challenges facing my authority. Local government is highly complex with many dependencies and constraints. Where else would you see a single business offering over 700 different services? So there is never a dull moment and I believe the highlights for me are where I can see that scarce council resources can be focused on making changes which make the biggest difference to our customers.

I take pride when I see that customer satisfaction has increased as a result of new processes and technology, such as by introducing a new telephone system with better call handling or through our new web site containing richer content and advice so customers are getting their queries and problems resolved. Building on this we are using a customer relationship management system which nudges customers to shift channel through being able to interact with the council at any time, with 16 of the top customer contact issues now handled through digital means. We are gaining a lot of data from these interactions which will help to design future service delivery models through this insight.

Our staff have the answers to most of the challenges and issues we face. I want to ensure that staff feel empowered and have access to the tools they need to do their job. Walsall’s digital champion network, borne out of the rapid transition to home working, is a really good example of how staff with a general interest in technology have come together to form a supportive network of over 200 people.

Using Microsoft Teams they communicate with each other, have early access to new technology and act as a first point of contact for any queries within their own teams. Walsall was an early adopter of this joint Socitm and Microsoft Change Agent training course and it has helped to further enhance the skills of our digital champions.

I want to ensure that the council gets the greatest benefit from its investment in technology and that to deliver a credible, secure and trusted service the systems we use need to be fit for purpose, up to date and available at all times. Our cloud-first strategy has been running since 2020 and enabled the council to consolidate IT systems and provide greater resilience.

Q. How are you involved with Socitm?

I have been a Socitm member for over 20 years and have always found the society really welcoming and helpful. Four years ago I became the chair of the West Midlands region and 18 months ago we merged with the East Midlands region to become the Midlands region, which was region of the year in 2022.

Last year I became a Socitm vice-president with responsibility for the service modernisation and improvement policy area. I tap into resources that Socitm membership provides and Walsall uses Socitm Advisory for the work we are doing on customer and access management, so I am a representative of the society but in my day job I also use its services.

Socitm is about bringing like minded people together – a safe space to showcase great work, learn and share. The events are well thought through and while providing updates and technical information from key suppliers, I believe their greatest benefit is creating the space where people come together away from the pressures of their everyday work to talk, listen and share. Some of the case studies we hear are amazing, on the challenges people have faced. My passion is to see how we can accelerate successful change by being able to use what people have already done.

What I get out of it is hearing what other people have done through case studies and where I could apply these to my own organisation. I have also been able to share some of the things Walsall has been doing. Often we are so busy, we don’t give ourselves the time to say ‘we tried this’.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside work?

I live in Shropshire so am blessed with wonderful countryside right on my doorstep. I’ve got a cockapoo called Doris and at weekends I love long walks with her and with my family – clearing my head, getting some exercise and enjoying some fresh air.

I start my day with my morning walk with Doris as it helps me with my mindfulness. Just 30 minutes first thing in the morning helps get me ready for the day and I believe makes me more productive.

I also belong to a very active book club and we recently went away for a weekend in Wales. It’s not the stuffy kind but quite an exciting group of a dozen women who enjoy drinking wine as well as reading books, most recently Bob Mortimer’s Satsuma complex.

My son and my daughter are grown up now and I still really enjoy spending time with them and travelling – I love to explore new places and new food. The whole family recently went to Jersey and we loved walking and exploring there.

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Socitm overview: Former president Sam Smith to lead Socitm Inspire

Socitm has appointed its former president Sam Smith as the first director of its new institute Socitm Inspire. Sam, who is currently assistant director of customer and digital services​ for Cambridgeshire County Council and assistant director of digital and data services​ for Peterborough City Council​, will start her new role on 17 July.

She will be responsible for overseeing the development the institute and contribute to its overall strategic direction. Socitm Inspire will officially launch on day one of the organisation’s President’s Conference in Brighton on Tuesday 13 June.

“I’m thrilled to get the opportunity to play another key role in the evolvement of this wonderful organisation,” said Sam. “My own development with Socitm has parallels with the journey we are on as a society through the institute. I am proud to take this leadership role and contribute to Socitm’s ongoing success. My journey is testament to the organisation’s commitment to living its values of ‘by the members for the members‘.”

“We are creating a powerful community that connects local leaders, policymakers, and practitioners not just from local authorities but also other public bodies and private partners, so we can learn from each other,” she added. “Our members tell us they come for the content but stay for this community.”

“My journey is testament to the organisation’s commitment to living its values of by the members for the members”

Sam Smith, Socitm Inspire

Sam joined Cambridgeshire County Council as a helpdesk assistant supporting its social services database, having realised she had an affinity for IT while undertaking statistical research for a degree course. She eventually moved to the county’s main IT department where she was encouraged to apply for a team manager role then progressed to senior management.

She completed Socitm’s Empowering Women programme in 2016. “It was absolutely fundamental in making me reassess what I needed and where I wanted to go in both my life and my career,” she said in 2018, adding that the experience of taking the course led her to put herself forward for a role on the committee of the society’s eastern region, which she then chaired.

Sam joined Socitm’s board as a vice-president in 2018 then led it as president for two years during the Covid-19 pandemic from 2020 to 2022. The last 12 months saw her continuing to serve as immediate past president, including acting as chair of April’s national conference in Cardiff.

Sam Smith speaking at the 2022 President’s Conference
Sam Smith speaking at the 2022 President’s Conference (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Socitm overview: Leadership graduates share experiences of Socitm training

Graduates of Socitm’s Top Talent and Empowering Women courses have discussed how they benefitted from doing these in a series of blogposts for Socitm’s website.

Amy Jackson, GIS and gazetteer manager for Elmbridge Borough Council, joined a Top Talent course with the aims of gaining direction and purpose in her career, as well as re-engaging and building confidence. She said that the workshop approach encouraged people to contribute with enthusiasm, something she found energising.

“The Amygdala Hijack was a very powerful concept that I could really relate to and see impacting my personal and work life,” she wrote in the blogpost, with the term referring to immediate and overwhelming responses. “I am now more aware and able to identify emotional triggers, so I can implement techniques to reduce impacts. I also found the science of persuasion a very empowering concept and will try to use some of the techniques when formalising business cases and bid submissions, as well as in my personal life.”

Jackson added that following the course she has worked to develop a presence within both the industry, such as speaking on a panel at Socitm’s Leadership Academy Alumni event last December in London, and her own organisation. “I have consciously tried to improve my relationship management and professionalism,” she wrote. “I am feeling more confident and motivated, and the team is happier and more productive.”

Eleri Thomas, who works in Isle of Anglesey County Council’s corporate transformation team, took the Empowering Women course in October 2022. She said that her experience of IT has been “mostly dominated by male managers” but that the course featured a range of women in terms of ages and with both introverts and extroverts. “This combination gave different perspectives and views that opened questions and discussions, which was really engaging and interesting,” she wrote in her blogpost.

“I am feeling more confident and motivated, and the team is happier and more productive”

Amy Jackson, Elmbridge Borough Council

She said that the most powerful element of the course was that she became aware of her inner critic and learnt how to overcome it.

“Before this programme, I had never made a presentation in my life. We were set into groups and given a task to complete which involved a presentation at the end,” she wrote. “I have managed to conquer one of my biggest fears, now anything is possible!”

Thomas said she had learnt that she was a good team player, but to become a team leader she needs to listen, encourage, engage and voice her own opinions. “This program will take you on a journey of self-reflection. It will build your self-confidence and change the way you value yourself in a positive way,” she said in a recommendation.

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Socitm overview: June dates for free Change Agent digital transformation courses

Socitm and Microsoft are running Change Agent courses in June, which are free for the majority of Microsoft Enterprise Agreement public sector customers.

The main five-day course, for staff or junior managers, takes place from Monday 19 to Friday 23 June online. A two-day course for managers is already underway, with the second session taking place on Friday 16 June.

The Change Agent programme, a collaboration between Socitm and Microsoft, aims to train at least one person in every public sector service to be a catalyst for change, connecting them with others in similar roles to innovative create communities of practice.

The main course provides those taking it with a basic to intermediate understanding of a range of Microsoft tools including SharePoint, Teams and Power BI.

Delegates will learn skills to make services more efficient and sustainable, develop technical abilities, learn how to get the most from data and gain an understanding of opportunities to automate processes.

The course is suitable for those who enjoy learning, making their service more sustainable and recognise that technology can enable change. Participants do not need to be particularly technical beyond a basic level of ability, but need to be willing to learn. As well as ensuring their diaries are clear for the days of the course, they are asked to bring a specific problem from their organisations, such as difficulties motivating people remotely or staff time being taken on saving documents and rekeying information.

The courses are led by Aidan Matthews, Socitm’s learning programme manager, and Andrew Boxall, a client technology lead at Microsoft. Day one focuses on skills to help participants change how they work. Day two covers Microsoft Teams and SharePoint and day three Power Platform and automation. Day four looks at transformative technologies including Power BI and bots with day five focused on how to apply this through techniques such as agile development and requirements gathering.

The Change Agent programme was trialled at Coventry, Norfolk and Walsall councils before being launched in June 2022. “The Change Agent programme brings together two often separate considerations (people and technology) and challenges attendees to consider how these capabilities can be used in a complementary way to improve working practices and re-imagine services,” Socitm chief executive Nadira Hussain said on its launch.

“The blend of lessons worked well and it was fantastic to see attendees learn how they might tackle change programmes in their specific teams, for their services and foster a more transformative approach organisationally.”

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