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In Our View, issue 40 (Focus)

Featuring coverage of October’s national conference in Birmingham

Authors and contributors: SA Mathieson, Carol Williams
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Socitm In Our View Focus, issue 40

This edition of Socitm’s membership publication covers Socitm’s national conference held in Birmingham on 5 October on modernising service delivery. It includes coverage of how Sevenoaks District Council has boosted online transactions through use of agile methods, research on how connected Britons feel to their neighbourhoods and ideas from Walsall Council and Oxfordshire County Council on tackling skills shortages.

Illustration showing a man and a woman standing on giant jigsaw pieces

Vice-president’s welcome: A good forum for warts and praise 

You are the membership of Socitm and we work to deliver what you need. It is really important that we keep the dialogue going so that we hear what you have got to say and include what you are looking for in events and sessions.

As a vice-president of Socitm my policy theme is service modernisation. The tenets of my theme are supporting innovation and empowering change, enhancing performance and championing inclusivity. I hope you will agree that the event we have put together today includes aspects of all these.

Big thanks to colleagues from our vendor partner organisations, as we cannot put on these events without your help and support. We will have a great discussion on empowering women and I am committed to our allyship programme, having recently been on an eye-opening allyship course run by West Midlands Employers. Looking at our workforce of the future, it is really important that we make use of equality, diversity and inclusion.

One thing that is good about local government is that we tell it warts and all. When we have successes we aren’t so good at singing our praises, but this is a good forum to do that. If you have had experiences that have not gone so well I am really keen that you share those, because the way we learn is by making those mistakes, moving on and doing things differently.

Carol Williams
Socitm vice-president; director of transformation and digital and senior information risk owner, Walsall Council

This is an edited version of Carol’s welcome to Socitm’s modernising service delivery event held in Birmingham on 5 October. View the slides from the event in the agenda on the event page (PDF download buttons are only visible when logged in).

Sevenoaks uses agile to boost online transactions by a fifth

Sevenoaks District Council in Kent has seen online transactions rise by 20% while phone calls have fallen by 9%, after it introduced a range of customer-focused forms developed with agile methods.

Amy Wilton, head of information and customer solutions, told Socitm’s modernising service delivery event on 5 October that the authority has released 38 online forms, processed 29,000 completed forms and taken £600,000 online since October 2022. It now processes payments for transactions including garden waste permits, large item collection and fly-tipping through the Government Digital Service’s free Gov.uk Pay service, making a big difference to staff: “We are really small and those £600,000 of payments were being taken manually over the phone by customer services,” she said.

Wilton said that Sevenoaks, which has seen phone and email customer contacts rise by fifth since the pandemic, previously had an in-house IT development team whose members would spend several months on projects which they delivered only when completed rather than incrementally. This led to other council staff contacting them directly with urgent requests: “They would look at it, say ‘that looks quite fun’, change what they were doing and take it on,” she said. “We needed to change all of that.”

She added that the development team’s practices of running projects individually and using a range of different programming languages meant that if something went wrong and the relevant person was on leave or ill, the council often had to wait for them to return before the fault was addressed. The team also did little in the way of change control and documentation.

Wilton replaced it with a new customer insights team consisting of a manager, one of the existing developers, a new builder with no previous digital experience, two job-sharing customer analysts and a corporate complaints co-ordinator, all trained on agile development. One of its first projects was to move the council from an old customer relationship management (CRM) system to Liberty Create, a low-code development platform provided by supplier Netcall.

“I remember a conversation with my chief exec where I went in and he said ‘have you lost your mind?”

Amy Wilton, Sevenoaks District Council

“The low-code option seemed like a really good place for us to start,” said Wilton, as it would allow rapid development. But she was questioned about the wisdom of replacing the old CRM given the cost of developing it over several years: “I remember a conversation with my chief exec where I went in and he said ‘have you lost your mind?’.”

Sevenoaks has decided against forcing residents to move to online processes, such as by hiding telephone numbers. It has not advertised the new processes although its advisers tell residents that they can do these transactions online when talking to them. “Our data shows that customers have naturally found it themselves,” Wilton said.

She added that the customer insights team has a pipeline of plans for the next 12 months, using customer service data to decide what is most important. Its work includes focusing on avoidable phone contacts where residents could instead use online self-service and automating the corporate complaints process, which currently relies on manually managed spreadsheets and PDFs.

Just over half of Britons feel they belong locally  

Only 54% of adults in Great Britain feel they belong in their neighbourhoods, raising questions about whether the public sector should do more to build people’s sense of place, Shailen Popat of the University of Birmingham told the event.  

“In our university, within local authorities and central government there is a lot of talk about place-based strategies,” said Popat, who is director of the masters in public management course at the university’s department of public administration and policy. “But it feels like we could do more. Do we need more policy focus on this sense of belonging to our neighbourhoods?”  

The figure, based on research carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in June and July, is lower than proportions who are engaged with arts and culture, sport and nature or who voted in the 2019 general election. Popat added that people’s sense of belonging is likely to vary through their lives, moving from relative transience when they are young adults to greater commitment as they get older.  

Popat said that engagement with arts and culture appears to have increased in recent years, possibly boosted by online events. Sporting participation has been stable since 2015 and is significantly lower, something he said could be increased through better ranges of accessible activities. 

ONS research says that only one in three people provided unpaid help to clubs, groups, charities or organisations over the last 12 months. “There is large potential that we might be able to harness,” said Popat. “Even if we were able to increase that to 50%, that would be a significant number of extra hours of volunteering that could improve our communities.” 

Using AI for assistance cuts risks say suppliers 

Public sector organisations can reduce the risks associated with generative artificial intelligence (AI) by using it to assist staff rather than fully automate processes, members of a supplier panel told the event. 

Jay Dudley, Salesforce’s regional lead for London, Midlands and Wales, said that generative AI’s flaws such as hallucinations and toxicity can be mitigated by using it in advisory roles. These include suggesting the next action when talking to residents, predicting who is at risk of debt problems and drafting webpages for humans to check. “Start with the easy stuff, think ‘augmented humans’,” he said. 

Mark Gibbons, technical services director for MLL Telecom, said machine learning, a branch of AI, can be applied to technical data to tackle potential problems at an early stage. For a network, quickly detecting a cleaner unplugging hardware at the same time each evening could prevent a significant failure, although this requires highly reliable data. He added that smaller organisations may find it hard to provide enough source material to train a generative AI model. 

Helpdesk staff with attitude help tackle skills shortage

Walsall Council is tackling skills shortages by hiring service desk staff who have attitude and transferrable skills, providing then with training then encouraging them to apply for bigger jobs, head of transformation and change Caroline Brom told the event.

In 2022, Walsall saw 22 of its digital and technology service team successfully applying for new roles, with three-quarters of those moving having started on the service desk. “That’s not us giving them a promotion because we can’t, we have to torture them [to apply],” Brom joked, with jobs having to be advertised externally. “What it proves is that we are sitting on a gold mine. By investing in our staff, we can actually help ourselves.” The council is formalising this by creating an internal academy and it has also recruited some apprentices.

The council’s lengthy recruitment process acts as a hindrance, however. As well as barring automatic promotion, Walsall requires lengthy job applications, does not accept CVs and can take three months to complete a recruitment process. “We are attempting to change some of our HR processes to make things easier,” said Sharon Worrall, the council’s head of digital (operations). “Why do we have things that exclude people who don’t have a formal degree?” she added, noting that she has never used her degree in her job.

“We are sitting on a gold mine. By investing in our staff, we can actually help ourselves” 

Caroline Brom, Walsall Council

Worrall added that it would help recruitment if applying was easier, such as by moving closer to processes such as LinkedIn’s Easy Apply which lets people who have already provided the service with details and a CV apply for a job with minimal effort. Sevenoaks District Council’s Amy Wilton responded that her council accepts CVs as part of job applications so this is possible for local authorities, although it also requires applicants to fill in a form covering their competencies.

Paid time off for all?

The event also saw presentations on improving recruitment and retention from the latest cohort of Socitm’s Empowering Women programme. The Lemon Yellow group from Oxfordshire County Council argued that introducing paid time off for all employees could help attract and keep good staff. The council experienced 12.2% staff turnover in 2022/23 with the highest rates among younger employees and lost more than eight days a year per employee to sickness with stress, depression and anxiety the top reasons for this.

Natasha Brammer, Oxfordshire’s head of commercial and business management, said that paid leave has progressed from maternity leave to paternity and shared parental leave to some employers offering sabbaticals. She said that offering paid time off for everyone for any reason could allow staff to take a career break, look after ageing relatives or friends or volunteer for an extended period.

Such a policy would help Oxfordshire meet its goal of being an employer of choice by making staff feel valued and would be likely to improve staff retention and help with succession planning and career progression: “Opportunities for people to progress and step into the role of people who have left for these breaks would create a much more resilient workforce,” Brammer said. While it would have a cost for the council, this could be managed through salary sacrifice schemes, basing allowances of length of service and awarding partial rather than full pay during sabbaticals. The group plans to pitch the idea to Oxfordshire’s senior management.

Two other Empowering Women groups discussed ways to provide better support for specific groups of staff, including through internal networks. Birmingham City Council has an Asian network and one for early career staff, while Coventry City Council is setting up a carers’ network for employees who provide unpaid care.

Nations and regions news  

Scotland 

All schools in East Lothian, City of Edinburgh, Fife, Midlothian, Scottish Borders and West Lothian will get access to indoor environmental sensors linked to analytics and visualisation through the University of Edinburgh’s IoT Schools Network.  

Wales 

Powys County Council and Aberystwyth University plan to use Internet of Things sensors as part of research to develop and pilot new technologies for the care sector as part of the Health Foundation’s £2 million Tech for Better Care programme. 

Northern Ireland 

Ards and North Down Borough Council has moved to requiring online or telephone bookings for its nine household recycling centres, with 95% of bookings in the first week made online. 

Republic of Ireland 

Dublin City Council has installed BoxUp outdoor lockers in some of its parks which allow registered users with up to three hours free access to sports and leisure equipment through use of dedicated app

North-east England 

Sunderland City Council, the University of Sunderland and supplier Boldyn have introduced secure access to higher education network Eduroam for users through the city’s public wi-fi network. 

Yorkshire and the Humber 

Leeds City Council has completed a four-year, £1.6 million project to upgrade more than 5,200 emergency telecare alarms from analogue to digital, with sensors now using SIMs rather than user broadband or wi-fi services.  

North-west England 

Greater Manchester Combined Authority has hosted Fix the Digital Divide, a conference on social housing and digital exclusion, which discussed that many households have turned off internet connections to save money. 

East Midlands 

Derbyshire County Council has published an online information finder for adults needing support with independent home living which based on answers to questions points them to appropriate services, activities, resources and guidance. 

West Midlands 

Shropshire Council has added the 500,000th image to its archives service’s digital catalogue, which includes 12th century charters and local fire certificates issued after the Great Fire of London. 

East of England 

The Greater Cambridge Partnership led by Cambridgeshire County Council has provided journey planning app Citymapper with access to real-time local bus data, with the city’s buses now appearing with the service’s London option. 

South-east England 

Oxfordshire County Council and the county’s five city and district councils have launched OxonAir, a new air quality website that provides alerts, pollution predictions and real-time readings from monitoring stations.  

South-west England 

Swindon Borough Council’s use of drones to inspect social housing roofing increases transparency by letting residents see assessments taking place, the council’s head of emerging technology and business improvement Sarah Peña told UKAuthority. 

London 

Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames has installed a new fibre network for its 41 CCTV camera locations with funding from the Greater London Authority, part of a programme including air quality and traffic congestion sensors. 

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