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In Our View, issue 39 (Focus)

Featuring coverage of 2023’s President’s Conference in Brighton

Authors and contributors: Mark Lumley, SA Mathieson, David Ogden
Cover of Socitm's In Our View magazine, issue 39 (Focus)

This edition of Socitm’s membership publication reports on the President’s Conference, which took place in Brighton on 13-14 June. It includes new president Mark Lumley’s dinner speech and coverage of keynotes from Matt Prosser, chief executive of Dorset Council and Solace, and Rehana Ramesh, head of digital transformation at Brent Council. Other sessions covered include advice on cyber attacks from the South West Regional Cyber Crime Unit and guidance on connected places from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Illustration showing a man and a woman speaking on stage while another woman in  wheelchair uses her tablet.

President’s welcome: Tell me how Socitm can support your digital journeys

This is the third Socitm President’s Conference I’ve been to in Brighton. I remember sitting in the audience as I started my career at Epsom and Ewell Borough Council. I was a bit of a geek and I think I probably still am. I had no thought that one day I would be standing on this stage, let alone as president. It just shows that local government just gets you, digital gets into your blood and under your skin.

One of the things I’m passionate about is mental health, as you will see from MindOut, the charity I have chosen. We talk at Hounslow about being your authentic self at work, and its culture means I am allowed and I feel safe to be an out gay man at work.

It is so important to live and breathe the values of inclusivity and diversity, not just in our teams but in our organisations and in Socitm. Some of the topics today included ethics and artificial intelligence and making sure that we don’t build in bias to the things we are developing is so important.

When I joined Hounslow we were very much an IT team and we are on a digital journey. I still don’t really know what digital means and I think that’s a problem we have. It’s not OK that senior leaders are allowed to stand up and say ‘I don’t really get this IT stuff’. If I said that about financial or people management, I wouldn’t be in my role for very much longer.

We need to continue to raise our profile and raise skill levels through the amazing stuff we do in Socitm such as Top Talent, Change Agent and Empowering Women.

I am so proud of some of the work we’ve done in Hounslow on our digital journey. We have doubled the amount of broadband fibre to the property in the borough, reduced the number of ‘not-spots’ and given away over a thousand laptops to schoolkids, families and those who need them. I’m particularly proud of our digital festival, which we started in lockdown to bring people together to have a focus on mental health and have a bit of fun as well. Local government is such a hard place to work, although it is very rewarding. It’s really important that we take stock to celebrate our successes.

This is your society, you get out what you put in. I want you to think about how we can help you as our members to drive that change in our local communities. I want to hear from you, I want to listen and understand where we can make that difference. It is your organisation – I want you to use it.

Mark Lumley
Socitm president (

This is an edited version of Mark Lumley’s speech at his president’s dinner in Brighton on 13 June. The dinner raised more than £1,200 for MindOut, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer mental health service based in Brighton. Slides for most of the presentations from the conference are available in the event agenda.
Matt Prosser speaking at President's Conference 2023
Matt Prosser, Dorset Council (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Dorset digital merger is work in progress

Dorset Council has merged several systems inherited from its six predecessors but still has a way to go, its chief executive Matt Prosser told day one of Socitm’s President’s Conference in Brighton on 13 June.

The unitary, which in April 2019 replaced most of Dorset County Council and five of its six districts, has successfully merged six planning systems and three housing systems into one of each. It is also working on a single customer account: “We like to talk about only having one door, the reality is we have about 133 currently. We’re trying to rationalise those,” Prosser said in a keynote session, adding that some other legacy systems did not meet the needs of its predecessor councils.

He said the council promotes Dorset as a technology innovator, which can be challenging: “The home of palaeontology, with our Unesco Jurassic coastline, literally known as the home of dinosaurs with more over-65s than anywhere else in the country,” Prosser described the area. It has run a series of annual future festivals, deployed 5G technology in areas including agriculture and marine safety and trialled digital socks that can help track care home residents.

Developing digitisation means investing in staff, with the council having introduced digital champions both within the organisation and for its customers. “While the tech is important, the people and the culture are really vital,” he said.

Prosser, who is also chief executive of local government leaders’ association Solace, also announced that Socitm has signed up to Solace’s code of ethics for local public service senior managers.

Will Costello and Emma Holmes, Socitm Advisory (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Socitm Advisory: collaboration key to service design

Effective service design work depends on collaboration and effective work to understand service users, according to research based on two workshops run by Socitm Advisory.

Will Costello, head of service for Advisory’s design lab, said the first workshop found collaboration was key to advancing service design. Participants also said research needs to cover who users are, such as using personas who represent groups of people, and what is needed to support them. “One of the key challenges we discussed around personas was making sure they were realistic rather than too generic,” he said.

The second workshop found that continuous improvement, delivered by a hybrid model featuring a central design team working with service-specific colleagues, was a strong way to deliver such projects.
Socitm Advisory is inviting local public services to join an virtual ‘coffee shop’ forum to discuss service design further.

Police: involve us as early as possible in cyber incidents

Local public services hit by cyber incidents should involve the police as early as possible, an officer from the South West Regional Cyber Crime Unit (SWRCCU) told a workshop session of the event on Tuesday.

Early involvement opens access to specialist advice and means the police can collect more useful digital evidence, increasing the chances of bringing criminals to justice. The SWRCCU officer said that organisations should first report incidents to the central Action Fraud service to generate a reference number then contact local police or regional units.

He added the police can get involved even if an organisation is considering the payment of a ransom in an attempt to recover data. However, he said the police do not encourage or condone paying ransoms, and that doing so funds criminality and has no guarantee of success.

The officer spoke through one of their real-life cases which compared three organisations hit by the same strand of ransomware, in each case encrypting their corporate data. The organisations with adequate protection and continuity plans in place did respond much more effectively, resulting in a smaller impact and losing fewer working days.

By contrast, unprepared organisations who relied on quick solutions, invested limited time into cybersecurity, or believed they would never be a victim, faced prolonged disruption, financial loss, and in some cases bankruptcy and business failure.

The SWRCCU officer compared cybersecurity to potholes; while it makes sense to fill them in, drivers should assume some will remain and take steps to minimise damage when they hit one. He added it is vital organisations have both robust back-up processes and they check these are working properly, so when hit by attacks they have a stronger chance of restoring services quickly.

As well as investigating serious cyber-dependent crimes, SWRCCU offers free talks, workshops and cyber exercises, both in person and online, including the popular Cyber Escape Room which also ran at the conference.

Top Talent groups respond to cybersecurity disaster

Organisations hit by a cybersecurity breach will cope much better if they have planned their approach in advance, the most recent Top Talent cohort told the event.

Three teams delivered presentations on how they would react to stages of an attack where all of a local authority’s active equipment was infected with ransomware, then a vulnerable adult went missing with the authority unable to provide police with information. It also covered failure of a backup system, media pressure and subsequent fall-out.

All the teams emphasised the importance of planning for such attacks before they happen. “We were really shocked at just how frequently this occurs across our organisations,” said cohort member Emma Rudd, digital services transformation manager at Kent County Council. She noted that her team’s proposed responses at each stage were tactical and operational, given how difficult it is to behave strategically while an incident is taking place.

The teams saw good communication as important, including written statements for the media and transparent information for staff.

Glen Robinson, Microsoft (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Microsoft aims to use AI responsibly

Microsoft has published guidance on how to use artificial intelligence (AI) technologies responsibly and is training all of its staff on this, its UK national technology officer Glen Robinson told the event.

As part of this Robinson said that Microsoft obtains its own training data for AI models, rather than using customers’ material. “If you train a machine learning model on our platform, we do not use your data to train our models,” he said. “Your data is your data.”

He said that one way to use generative AI responsibly is through ‘metaprompts’ that set guardrails on what is generated by user prompts, or natural language instructions. These can limit the data a large language model can draw on, the equivalent of telling a search engine only to return pages from a certain URL; adjust the tone of responses; add safety controls such as blocking jokes about groups of people; and block users from ‘jailbreaking’, disclosing or changing these rules.

Over the last few months, Microsoft has integrated the ChatGPT large language model into its Bing search engine “Putting in content safety is absolutely critical.” Robinson said. The company runs automated checks on both queries and content returned, blocking what it sees as unacceptable.

Microsoft is expanding its use of AI in software including the Office suite through what it calls ‘Copilots’. These will be able to do things like summarise changes in a Microsoft Teams workspace over a period of time, using sentiment analysis on emails to estimate what is significant. Microsoft-owned GitHub has already introduced a Copilot service that can turn natural language prompts into suggested code.

Robinson said that AI already works well in four areas: content generation, code generation, search and summarisation. He said it could be used to democratise innovation by making it easier for frontline workers to use technology to do their jobs better. “The barrier to entry is now natural language,” he said. “This is how the people you serve are going to want to consume stuff.”

An online poll of delegates carried out immediately after the presentation suggested that trust and data quality are significant issues for using AI in local government. Socitm is working on a guide which will provide advice on the technology’s risks and benefits.

You might be interested in:

Microsoft’s responsible AI principles
Sydney persona in Bing’s ChatGPT
GitHub Copilot service

Rehana Ramesh speaking at President's Conference 2023
Rehana Ramesh, Brent Council (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

Brent used research and robotics to reboot strategy

Brent changed its approach to digital transformation after failing to make progress with its original consultant-designed plans, Rehana Ramesh told day two of the President’s Conference.

The London borough developed a 30-page digital strategy in 2018. “We paid a consultancy tons of money for them to tell us exactly what we already knew in a very fancy way,” Ramesh, its head of digital transformation, told a keynote session. But departments did not want to use what it built as a result, with some claiming people would die if they changed an online form.

“I could do a PhD, I could write a thesis on how not to do digital transformation,” she said, such as building a system called Spacebook which didn’t book spaces. The borough ran 240 line of business applications, some of which cost £100,000 several years previously but had not gone live, while it had 60 online portals, hundreds of PDFs and 450 online forms. “Each and every form had a different look and feel. I’m genuinely surprised Brent residents didn’t need therapy after going on our website,” Ramesh joked.

So for its 2022 strategy it changed its thinking. It shifted from running surveys to holding direct discussions with each team to research their fears and issues, discovering that some staff did not know how to switch on an iPhone, and initiated an annual staff technology week. It also set up a wide-ranging technical design authority that includes experts on customer service, finance and data protection as well as technologists.

The borough also started using robotic process automation (RPA) and now employs eight developers in this area. Brent reckons it has saved £4 million through use of RPA, particularly in debt collection. Ramesh said that some employees ask if RPA could make their jobs obsolete and she tells them it could, but that the council will still want to employ them if they are willing to learn new skills. “If you do things for the right reasons, you get buy-in,” Ramesh said. “The trust will come.” It has also considered and rejected the use of other technologies including blockchain.

Overall, Brent has cut its number of applications from 240 to 170. The proportion of digitally-excluded people in the borough has fallen from 14% to 4% and the council runs support programmes including Take Your Shot studios, a local workspace for creative digital entrepreneurs.

“Digital transformation is not about technology, it’s about creating and enhancing human experiences,” Ramesh summed up.

A panel discussion at President's Conference 2023 with Farah Ahmed, Simon Arnell, Tim Robertson and session 
chair Joe Bourne
Farah Ahmed, Simon Arnell, Tim Robertson and session chair Joe Bourne (left to right) (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

DSIT drafts security guidance for councils connecting places

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) has published draft guidance for local authorities on securing connected places, also known as smart places, with the involvement of Socitm and six local authorities.

The alpha release of the Secure connected places playbook includes an explanatory presentation on cybersecurity designed for use within authorities; resources on governance; guidance on procurement and supply chain management; and how to conduct an analysis of Stride (spoofing, tampering, repudiation, information disclosure, denial of services and elevation of privilege) threats.

Tim Robertson, a project manager for Dorset Council, said he had argued for the explanatory ‘Connected places cybersecurity principles 101’ presentation as a way to help convince executives. But he said in a panel session that the guidance was designed based on specific things authorities don’t already know. “Don’t teach local authorities to suck eggs, we know how to do a lot of this already,” he said. “Tell us what’s particular about cyber that we need to think about.”

Simon Arnell, chief executive of consultancy Configured Things, said the project has involved looking at private sector guidance and identifying gaps. He noted that most local authorities have easy ways for residents to report faulty streetlights but not security vulnerabilities.

Farah Ahmed, DSIT’s head of secure connected places, said it has aimed to produce material that is easy to understand and adds to what is already available from the National Cyber Security Centre and others. She added that the department would like more local authorities to take part in its beta testing, asking for those interested to get in touch by 23 June.

Kevin White, W3C (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

No inclusivity without accessibility says W3C’s White

The standard-setting World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) can also help organisations make their websites more accessible, Kevin White, development and operations lead for its web accessibility initiative, told a session.

White said accessibility is about removing barriers faced by disabled people, which has further benefits: “If you don’t have accessible products, you can’t be inclusive, you can’t be diverse,” he said. The W3C provides an introductory guide, a free online course, a list of other courses and a curriculum for organisations wanting to establish training.

Delegates said that some suppliers create problems in this area, to which White said that a standard piece of text on accessibility for procurement documents can help address this. He added that asking software developers to watch disabled people attempting to use what they have developed and swearing at how bad it is can be a powerful technique.

Kat Taylor speaking at President's conference 2023
Kat Taylor, East Riding of Yorkshire Council (Credit: Matthew Horwood)

East Riding targets ‘most complex’ social care data

East Riding of Yorkshire Council is working to improve data management in its children’s and adult social care services to save saving money and expand automation, the council’s digital transformation lead Stephen Curtis told the conference.

He said that better data quality would allow East Riding to commission adult social care more efficiently and better manage millions of pounds of residents’ debts, as the council could tailor its efforts based on whether people can’t pay or won’t pay.

Curtis added that improved data services would allow automation of work by staff to manually extract information from operational systems for reports in areas including children’s services and financial management. “The capability we have to automate is limited, as you can’t automate on really poor quality data, and it’s not helping us with our financial challenge,” he said.

The council’s executive directors for children’s services and adult social care have agreed to be joint sponsors of its data improvement project, which is being supported by Socitm Advisory and data analytics specialist Simpsons. The children’s executive director has said that some social workers do not at present see the value in entering data into systems.

Kat Taylor, a digital facilitator for East Riding, said the organisation currently has more than 200 applications and 200 terabytes of data held on-premise, despite an intention to be cloud-first. “One of the single biggest challenges was connecting those data sources together,” she said, with no middleware or data warehouse in place. They decided to start with social care – “the most complex and confidential data possible, why not,” said Taylor.

The transformation team wants to involve the service teams as much as possible. “We have very strong ambitions to make data everybody’s business. But that really means having to understand what motivates people,” said Taylor. For example, improving data management would allow the performance team to move from its previous focus on what has happened to looking forward as well.

Curtis said that the project next needs to convince the council’s senior leadership to invest in the work: “I hope we’ll be able to come back to a future event and say, they said yes.”

View the Digital East Riding strategy

Empowering Women pitch job-matching games

Games designed to match female students to specific roles, encouragement for mid-career changers and a hashtag were among the ideas from the latest cohort of Socitm’s Empowering Women course to encourage more women to work in IT.

The role-matching games, proposed by the Sunshine yellow team for distribution through social media, included one where players plan a party by matching tasks to people. Completing the game would encourage them to find out more about technology project management jobs in local government. Another game involving bedroom design would lead to information about working as a web designer.

The Racing green team proposed a campaign using the hashtag #LetsTechWomen, which would include a website, online videos, visiting universities and engaging online influencers. The Sky blue team’s plans included a video-based campaign aimed at women returning to the workplace or considering a new job, discussing the advantages of public sector technology work such as a good work-life balance and saying it is never too late to change careers.

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