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In Our View, issue 42

Designing services for all

Authors and contributors: William Barker, Martin Ferguson, Kurt Frary, Benjamin Hughes, Mark Lumley, SA Mathieson, David Ogden
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Socitm In Our View magazine, issue 42

This issue of Socitm’s membership magazine, produced for the June 2024 President’s Conference in Birmingham, focuses on designing services for all. The main feature includes contributions from Age UK, the World Wide Web Consortium and North Yorkshire Council. The magazine also includes coverage of Socitm’s St George’s House consultation in March as well as February’s one-day conference in Sheffield. The Personal View column is written by Kurt Frary, head of IT and chief technical officer at Norfolk County Council and Socitm vice-president.

Editor: SA Mathieson
Editorial advisors: Martin Ferguson, David Ogden

President’s welcome: People make places and conferences too

Mark Lumley
Mark Lumley, Socitm president

Welcome to this issue of In Our View and, if you are attending, our President’s Conference in Birmingham where I am chairing the first day. I like a challenge, having recently taken responsibility for Hounslow’s work on emergency planning, business continuity and elements of flood prevention. I am sure our incoming president Carol Williams will enjoy the challenge of being president – hopefully no floods will be involved.

Our conference theme this year is that people make places and that is reflected in this issue’s main feature on designing services for everyone. Being told that it is no longer possible to carry out a transaction by post or phone can disempower people, forcing them to rely on relatives or even stopping them from using services. But as well as providing alternatives, we need to make digital services as accessible and easy to use as possible. North Yorkshire Council is aiming to use good design, user testing and help for people to adopt online services to this end.

In March, I took part in Socitm’s St George’s House consultation on connected places and artificial intelligence at Windsor Castle, which included discussion of my presidential themes of ethics and responsible use of technology. In this issue, you’ll find a summary of the event’s conclusions, with recommendations including the adoption of common data standards, sharing best practice work and working more closely with the other organisations that serve our areas. We are keen to hear what you think so please let us know.

This issue also includes vice-president Kurt Frary on his long career at Norfolk County Council, his work to develop its use of AI and his motorbike channel on YouTube. It also covers our one-day event held in February in Sheffield and our new place-based leadership course, which will first run here in Birmingham in September.

In a post-Covid age when so many meetings take place online, our annual conference gives us the chance to talk, eat, drink and even party with other Socitm colleagues. I hope you will find this year’s event inspiring and enjoyable.

Mark Lumley
Socitm president

News: Telecoms industry delays digital switchover after telecare deaths

Three retro telephone handsets laid side by side
Source: Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

The government has agreed new checks with the majority of telecoms providers to protect vulnerable customers from having services cut by digital switchovers, following the deaths of two telecare users last year.

In May, BT postponed its expected date for moving all Openreach lines from analogue public switched telephone network (PSTN) to digital connections from the end of 2025 to January 2027. “Our priority remains doing this safely and the work we’re doing with our peers, local authorities, telecare providers and key government organisations is key,” said Howard Watson, BT Group’s chief security and networks officer. “But more needs to be done and we need all local authorities and telecare providers to share with us the phone lines where they know there’s a telecare user.”

Around two million people in the UK use telecare equipment including emergency alarms. These may not work with digital lines which unlike PSTN ones do not include a power supply, meaning home equipment will fail in a power cut without a battery back-up.

The industry’s switchover programme was partially paused after the deaths of two customers in Greater Manchester and London last year after their telecare devices failed following switches away from PSTN, according to material received by the Financial Times in response to a Freedom of Information request.
In December, sector regulator Ofcom opened an investigation into the deaths saying “any action, or inaction, taken by communications providers which disrupts consumers’ ability to reach [emergency] services is of the utmost seriousness”.

“We were shocked and saddened to learn of these fatalities, and our thoughts remain with the families affected. We’ve been clear these provider failings are unacceptable,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Science, Industry and Technology, which over recent months has signed up the majority of network providers and operators to a charter for vulnerable customers being moved to digital services, including BT, Virgin Media O2, Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone. “This includes mandating additional checks on telecare users who have been forcibly moved onto the new fibre network to ensure suitable support is provided, and not forcibly migrating vulnerable people until all possible steps have been taken to protect them. We continue to monitor providers closely to ensure they adhere to these new measures.”

In March, seven metro mayors called for an urgent review of the switchover process, noting that no funding is available for local authorities to support the transition. “We shouldn’t be making changes to infrastructure that keeps people safe without absolute confidence in the new arrangements and the transition process,” said Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham.

Read more: DSIT supplier PSTN charter

News: Kent councils strengthen defences after cyber incident

Three district councils in Kent that experienced an online attack in January say they have upgraded security as a result. Canterbury City Council, Dover District Council and Thanet District Council were hit by what they described as a ‘cyber incident’ that disrupted some online services but did not breach data.

The three Kent councils were in the process of disbanding a joint IT arrangement and each chose different processes to recover from the incident. Canterbury City Council kept most online services working during the attack, in some cases by using workarounds. “We adopted the ‘build back better’ practice of reviewing our position pre-incident and bringing in new systems, processes and policies to better protect the council against future cyber risks,” said a spokesperson. “Normal operations have largely resumed now and we are working through some backlogs. For example, while we continued to publish committee agendas online through a workaround, we are catching up on adding documents back onto the normal system we use for publishing these. We would like to thank the public for their patience while we dealt with the incident.”

Dover District Council said its specialist IT security team recovered systems from the incident within a month with minimal loss of service to residents. “We have since introduced new solutions into our infrastructure to enhance the security of our systems, and have moved the security team from a shared service environment back to the council,” said a spokesperson. The council has conducted an in-depth analysis of the incident and started implementing further initiatives to prepare for any future emerging threats.

“We adopted the ‘build back better’ practice of reviewing our position pre-incident and bringing in new systems, processes and policies”

Canterbury City Council

Thanet District Council said it took a precautionary decision to lockdown and contain the network while investigating, limiting access to some of its online systems. It worked with the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and engaged a third-party cyber security technology company to support its internal teams. “The infrastructure and all endpoints were scanned, and where necessary hardening procedures took place prior to bringing any services back online,” said a spokesperson. “The internal network remained contained for just under two weeks while we completed the full investigation and prepared the infrastructure to come back online.” Having done that, Thanet has reviewed all its procedures, policies and processes and implemented a new security platform.

Elsewhere, Leicester City Council temporarily shut IT systems and phone lines on 7 March while investigating a cyber incident which saw it involving the NCSC and the police. It had most of its main service portals back online by the end of March, but the ransomware group responsible for the attack then released 25 documents which included personal data such as rent statements, applications to buy council housing and related documents including passport details. The group went on to publish approximately 1.3 terabytes of data. On 9 April, Leicester said it would contact those considered to be at high risk as a result of the data breaches.

The last few months have also seen the British Library, the Ministry of Defence and NHS Dumfries and Galloway suffer cyber attacks. The last involved ransomware criminals accessing millions of documents and pieces of data such as letters from consultants, test results and x-rays from late February, with some material released in March and much more in May. The Scottish health board has involved police and the NCSC and is similarly focusing on high risk data on particularly vulnerable people.

News: Put people first when reorganising, Sheffield event told

Local authorities undergoing change need to focus on people rather than technology, two executives involved in reorganisations told Reimagining Communities and Places, a conference held by Socitm in Sheffield on 28 February.

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

“Whether we call it human-centred design, customer-centred design or whatever, what we shouldn’t be doing is talking around technology and digital,” added Ling. “They don’t do anything, they just enable you. It’s the human stories that excite people.”

“What we shouldn’t be doing is talking around technology and digital. It’s the human stories that excite people”

Robert Ling, North Yorkshire Council

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

“We wouldn’t accept people saying ‘I don’t do finance’ or ‘I don’t do HR’, so why do we accept that people won’t do digital? How do we get them on-board, how do we get them not scared,” he asked, adding that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have set up change champion networks to help with this.

Patmore said he had saved a week of work by using a generative artificial intelligence (AI) service to draft 80% of a delivery plan. By providing a starting point, he said that Microsoft’s Copilot generative AI service is making him much more productive.

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

Rural areas need more than just infrastructure

Rural areas need help with awareness, knowledge and skills to take full advantage of digital technologies but support focuses largely on infrastructure, said Dr Peter Dewhurst, chair of membership organisation Business Peak District. He added that digital innovation tends to focus on ‘smart city’ urban areas while work in the countryside usually involves extending the reach of fast broadband, adding that the UK could learn from some Nordic countries which address issues beyond infrastructure in rural areas.

Recruitment joint-ventures create local jobs

Commercial Services Group, a Kent County Council-owned service provider for local authorities, has helped create 100 new local jobs through recruitment joint ventures in Dorset, Dudley, Hampshire, Luton and Surrey and its own work in Kent, commercial director Steve Wilson said. He added that the joint ventures have reacted quickly to events, setting up support for Covid-19 testing centres and a Ukrainian reception centre as well as finding people to support unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

News: Nations and regions

Based on stories recently featured in Socitm’s online digest of local public service news from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the nine regions of England

Nations and regions news map UK illustration

Moray uses on-demand buses to get visitors to whisky festival

Moray Council used its M.Connect on-demand bus service to provide three temporary timetabled routes to distilleries and other locations used by the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival on 1-6 May, the first time it has run the service over a weekend and bank holiday. The journeys could be booked through the council’s M.Connect app, which is also used for its on-demand service, as well as by phone on weekdays.

Councils across the UK are establishing similar services. In December, Hertfordshire County Council set up HertsLynx to serve rural areas of Dacorum, with early operations showing that Fridays is the most popular day of the week for the service. Passengers can book travel using an app, online or by phone.

Sunderland City Council is working to introduce three driverless electric buses which will carry passengers between the city’s Interchange bus station, the University of Sunderland’s city campus and the Sunderland Royal Hospital. The buses will have safety operators but will develop the use of secure remote supervision.

West Berkshire to optimise winter road treatments with sensors

West Berkshire Council and its highways maintenance provider VolkerHighways are leading a Berkshire-wide project to introduce thermal sensors in street lighting posts to make better decisions on when to treat roads during cold weather. The project is a continuation of the Thames Valley Berkshire Smart City Cluster, an internet of things project funded by the local enterprise partnership. Through better data on road surface temperatures, the councils hope to reduce the number of winter treatments by 40% by 2027.

Other councils introducing roadside sensors include Derbyshire County Council and Derbyshire Dales District Council, which will install sensors in lighting posts to monitor air quality in and around Ashbourne as part of work to develop an air quality action plan. The monitors and an associated modelling tool will be provided by EarthSense. Dublin City Council said it will work with the Partnership for Healthy Cities, a US-based not for profit organisation, to develop new technologies to evaluate and measure the impact of the 310 kilometre (192 mile) Active Travel Network it is building to support walking and cycling.

Bolton piloting generative AI for delivery, customers and efficiency

Bolton Council is establishing a generative artificial intelligence (AI) pilot scheme to “speed up delivery, help customer focus and increase efficiency,” leader Nick Peel told other councillors in March. “It should never be finance driven – as we’ve seen this can lead to hastily thought out and ill-conceived use of tech that leaves customers behind,” Peel said.

Among other councils introducing AI to increase their efficiency, Derby City Council said in February that it has signed a £7 million contract with ICS.AI. It is introducing copilot services for staff in three service areas including adult social care, customer services and debt recovery. The council expects to save £12.25 million a year when copilots are available across the council.

Cambridgeshire County Council’s Greater Cambridge Partnership and Oxfordshire County Council have set up a pilot project to apply machine learning to real-time data on roads in both counties to make recommendations to control room staff, with the aim of reducing waiting times and congestion.

Main feature: Designing services for all

Requiring use of online channels and poor design creates barriers to services – testing with real people can break them down

Illustration of an oversized tablet featuring all kinds of digital services - shopping, online payments for council services, apps, social media, health data, etc

Jack, who is 90 years old, used to pay his garden waste subscription by cheque but his local council no longer provides information on paying by post on its website. If it had sent him a letter with clear payment options including phone or cheque he might have chosen one of these. However, the council website talks only about online methods and while he can do simple web browsing, he is not familiar with using email and prefers not to use digital payments given his fear of fraud. If it wasn’t for his grandson who works for Socitm and helps him with online transactions, he probably would have given up his garden waste collections.

Our colleague’s grandfather is not alone. In a recent report, ‘Offline and overlooked’, charity Age UK said that 4.7 million people aged 65 and over do not have basic skills required to use the internet successfully and 2.3 million do not use the internet at all. It has called for public services including councils to offer and promote “an affordable, easy to access, offline way of reaching and using them”, adding that central government should provide local authorities with enough funding to provide these.

Offline alternatives can be hard to find. Research for this article covering a random sample of one-tenth of UK local authorities that handle waste found that of 25 which have an annual charge for garden waste 15 mention only online payments on the service webpage. Nine also provide a phone number and one offers telephone subscriptions only.

Some of the nine offering web and telephone listed other options as well, with Adur and Worthing district councils in West Sussex taking applications online, phone and post. “In the last full year 60% of signups for our garden waste service were made online and 40% via telephone. We received one postal application in the past year,” says a spokesperson. “We continue to offer all three options as it aids accessibility for our residents.” Monmouthshire Council provides registrations online, by phone and in person at its six community hubs.

“You may not want your family to know you have contacted the doctor. For some people it is very disempowering”

Sally West, Age UK

Some councils that mention only online options on the service webpage provide alternatives when asked, such as City of Wolverhampton which also accepts payments by phone, by post, at its civic centre and through monthly community support days held at different venues. “Existing garden waste customers are contacted when the new service year is open for sign-ups. This is either done by email where the customer has left an email address, or by letter,” says a council spokesperson. “An online sign-up service offers convenience for the majority of our residents. More than 80% of our customers use this route, with the remaining residents using the range of other methods available.”

Bromley, which shows the online option on its website, takes a similar approach. “We are very happy if residents want to sign up for garden waste collections by phone, online or even by traditional letter,” says Cllr Will Rowlands, Bromley’s executive councillor for environment. “There is no question that signing up via the website is the quickest and most efficient option and we would encourage new resident customers to signup online if possible. We do appreciate that for many people online subscription isn’t the most convenient, which is why we have a phone option available, published via the ‘contact us’ section on our website.” He added that residents continue to call to subscribe to the service daily.

2.3 million people aged 65+ do not use the internet.
4.7 million people aged 65+ are without basic internet skills.
15 out of 25 UK councils (from a random 10% sample) list only online payment options for garden waste services.
40% of paid garden waste subscriptions were by phone in Adur and Worthing last year.
Sources: Age UK; Socitm; Adur and Worthing district councils

A hard road to getting a blue badge

Age UK has just published research on how 110 councils in England and Wales responded to 220 calls asking for help applying for housing benefit or council tax reductions from people saying they were not online. Most were offered paper or telephone applications or help at an office or library, in some cases after prompts. But four callers could not get through a human and 16 were not offered alternative methods or help from the council to apply.

Many local authorities encourage the use of online applications and a few appear to insist on them, according to research last year by the charity. One in six of its local services in England and Wales said that local councils insisted on internet applications for blue badge parking permits for those with mobility problems, with many of the rest reporting that there were offline alternatives but these were often not promoted. Some councils encouraged applicants to get help from charities including Age UK, increasing demand for its advice services. As a result, one branch decided to stop supporting blue badge applications given these were taking up so much time.

Age UK policy manager Sally West says that online blue badge applications often require people to take and upload images, which can be a challenging process. “People who are designing systems may not think, ‘not everyone has got all the equipment I have’,” she says. Also, many older internet users are happy to browse information but reluctant to carry out transactions. “Fear of scams is a big issue. A lot of people have been affected themselves or know someone who has,” West says. Some also worry about making mistakes such as adding an extra zero to the amount they are paying.

Relying on a relative, friend or volunteer to interact with technology works well for some older people. But it involves trusting someone with bank details and medical conditions. “You may not want your family to know you have contacted the doctor,” says West. “For some people it is very disempowering.” Age UK heard of a woman who was in tears because she was told she could no longer order repeat prescriptions by telephone and was not able to do so either online or in person. “People should be able to do things independently,” she says, adding there is value in retaining options such as cheque payments even if these are more expensive for each transaction, as they are likely to be lightly used.

West says that many local authorities help develop older people’s digital skills and provide support through libraries. But Age UK argues that councils should provide suitable offline channels, consider the accessibility of online services and test this with real people. “Include people with low digital skills, those who use the internet but are not very confident,” she says of testing.

Accessibility, procurement and testing

Disabilities as well as age can make it harder to use public services. “Organisations could be doing more to make their digital services accessible to disabled people,” says Kevin White, technical accessibility lead for the World Wide Web Consortium and a Socitm trustee. Telephone and face-to-face services are important but can limit independence as they are generally open only during office hours and may involve travel while online services are available all the time. “Digital technology affords a high degree of independence, where people can choose to do what they want when they want,” he says.

He thinks UK local authorities have become more willing to tackle online accessibility problems over the last decade although more could be done to avoid them in the first place such as better approaches to testing and improvements in procurement. Councils that build their own systems generally do so with accessibility in mind but it can be hard to find commercial off the shelf products that do likewise. Even when accessibility is part of a procurement’s scoring criteria councils may find that no option meets the standard it has set. “The least worst option is finding a supplier which has evidence of improvements and is keen to make things better,” White says of this situation.

“Ultimately it’s users that are going to be trying to work out how to use your service. It makes sense to check they can”

Kevin White, World Wide Web Consortium

User testing with a wide range of people from an early stage of development has several benefits. Many usability and accessibility issues cannot be identified by automated testing although it may be sufficient for some services where the risk is low. “Ultimately it’s users that are going to be trying to work out how to use your service,” says White. “It makes sense to check they can.” Observing user testing can provide developers and product owners with a powerful motivator to improve accessibility, particularly when participants express extreme frustration when using the service.

White adds that organisations also benefit from employing disabled people which increases awareness of the need to build services that work for as many people as possible. More formal awareness-raising campaigns can also contribute: “It makes a difference as people realise the impact they can have on both creating a workplace and building services that work for disabled people,” he says.

North Yorkshire’s one front door

Some local public services can be redesigned when the organisation is ready to do so but North Yorkshire Council did not have that luxury. The new unitary took over from its predecessors, one county council and seven district councils, in April 2023 just 18 months after the merger was confirmed. This meant prioritising what was most important: “We had a mantra of safe and legal for day one,” says director of transformation Robert Ling.

But it also decided to open with a new unified website and non-geographic 0300 phone number, a project it called ‘One front door’. This required new services to provide the equivalent of a reception desk inside the new front door to direct calls and web visits. Some of these involve knowing which former district someone is in, as services including waste collection are still being delivered by teams based in those districts. For voice calls the council introduced an artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistant that it trained with local accents and colloquial terms while online it set up a chatbot and a lookup service that asks people for placenames rather than postcodes. “It’s very important that we get out and test with the people who will actually be using it,” says Ling, particularly with AI systems that depend on the quality of their training.

The choice of placenames for the lookup service came after customer testing of both options side-by-side, work that was carried out in the council’s highways offices. Anne-Louise Arkle, who leads North Yorkshire’s service design and digital adoption work, says they expected to use postcodes like most public services do, but found names worked better: “Without doing that customer testing we would have ended up with something more difficult to use.” The testing included a range of ‘personas’ or roles, including someone applying for a service on behalf of someone else, who is likely to know the town or village in which the person they are helping lives, but may not have the postcode.

North Yorkshire Council took over garden waste from seven district councils, which offered different options including free collection in Selby. While the new council continues to use seven different back-end systems inherited from the districts, it has established a standard charge and process for customers. It sends letters with a phone number to previous subscribers but promotes digital applications, with the website leading people into the online application process. “If somebody is on the website, the expectation is that they want to stay on that digital channel,” says Arkle. “The more people deal with us on the digital side, it makes it easier to offer a better face-to-face service where that is required as it frees up capacity,” adds Ling.

“Most people want to do things themselves. With some general encouragement… people are very willing”

Robert Ling, North Yorkshire Council

For blue badges, North Yorkshire Council promotes online applications as the quickest method but the service’s webpage also offers booked assisted digital appointments at its seven core libraries and a telephone-based process where documents can be posted rather than uploaded. The council can check eligibility and issue badges faster through the online process which it has worked to make it as accessible as possible and through which it has halved waiting times to six weeks.

The assisted digital appointments in libraries aim to support applicants to do more things for themselves in future, such as by helping them to set up an email account. “What we learnt is that most people want to do things themselves,” says Ling. “With some general encouragement pointing to where they can get support, people are very willing.” This can include people supporting each other, with one woman telling the council that she and a neighbour shared a bottle of wine while working through the application process, while knowing they could call if they needed support. The telephone option is available for those who need it, but it is only affordable if most customers use digital, which Ling says is also more convenient for many people as they can make transactions when they have the time.

Both Arkle and Ling stress the importance of careful design work and user testing of services, whether online, telephone or face-to-face. North Yorkshire Council has a small user experience team but has also made this part of its ethos: “We have invested as an organisation because we can see the benefit it pays,” says Arkle. “It does cost money to have good design but it’s really expensive to have bad design,” adds Ling.

By SA Mathieson with additional reporting by Benjamin Hughes

Main feature: Smartphone-only services may not be so smart

Less than two decades after Apple launched its first iPhone in 2007, smartphones may appear to be ubiquitous, but they aren’t. Ofcom’s 2023 technology tracker research found that 91% of adults own a smartphone with lower proportions for those over the age of 55, including just 61% of those aged 75 and over. While most people of this age group are connected through landlines, mobile telephones and the internet, with 91% having home internet access, they are effectively excluded from smartphone-only services such as those relying on apps and QR codes.

Graph: Technology use by age group
Percentage using smartphones:
18-24: 96%
25-34: 96%
35-44: 96%
45-54: 97%
55-64: 92%
65-74: 84%
75+: 61%

Percentage using non-smart mobile phones:
18-24: 98%
25-34: 97%
35-44: 98%
45-54: 99%
55-64: 98%
65-74: 97%
75+: 86%

Percentage using landlines:
18-24: 30%
25-34: 26%
35-44: 39%
45-54: 60%
55-64: 72%
65-74: 82%
75+: 91%

Source: Ofcom 2023 technology tracker survey of 3,997 people
Source: Ofcom 2023 technology tracker survey of 3,997 people

In general the public sector has avoided app-only services, but the exception is parking. BBC research in 2023 found that eight councils had removed all pay and display parking machines and made apps the main replacement payment option, with 14 others in the process of doing so, although many offered alternatives such as voice calls, text messages, web-based services or purchases through local shops. Last year also saw levelling up secretary Michael Gove warn councils in England about excluding older and vulnerable people through smartphone-only parking. The apps appear to be unpopular with the public, with a survey earlier this year by motoring publication Autocar of 1,387 drivers finding that 83% prefer to pay for parking with either cash or card and just 14% prefer parking apps.

App-first parking excludes more than the 3.3 million people aged 65 and over who do not use a smartphone, according to Age UK, with a further 2.7 million unable to find and open apps on their devices. Problems are exacerbated by the large number of parking apps and often poor usability, with the alternative of a voice call requiring users to read out card numbers in public places, possibly at night. Policy manager Sally West says the charity heard of one man who calls his wife to pay for his parking online from home.

It is well-known that some older people do not use smartphones, but there are increasing concerns over their impact on younger people. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and author, believes that their widespread adoption by children and teenagers over recent years is behind increases in anxiety, self-harm and suicide: “There is no other explanation and there is plenty of evidence now linking the phone-based childhood to this epidemic,” he told BBC Politics Live in April. In his book ‘The Anxious Generation’, Haidt argues that anyone below the age of 16 should have neither a smartphone nor social media accounts and that schools should be phone-free. Such views are backed by Smartphone Free Childhood, a recently-founded campaign group of more than 60,000 parents.

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Research view: Seeking wisdom on connected places and AI

Socitm’s St George’s House consultation ‘Towards connected places: insights into actions’ spurs debate on advancing community connectivity and progress, write David Ogden and William Barker

Photo of Windsor Castle by Roman Grac via Pixabay
Source: Windsor Castle by Roman Grac via Pixabay

On 18 March, a diverse group of 40 individuals representing the public, private, third and academic sectors met for a Socitm consultation at St George’s House, Windsor Castle.

The two-day consultation, ‘Towards connected places: insights into actions’, immersed participants in a rigorous schedule of discussions and debates, aimed at delving into the intricacies of what are and what makes ‘connected places’. It followed Socitm’s inaugural consultation, ‘Resilient people, communities and places’, in November 2021, which resulted in practical actions and outcomes including the establishment of the Socitm Institute.

Devolution, digital, data and sustainability

Day one looked at place-based leadership and transformation in an era of turbulent times, devolution, climate change and technological change. Key points raised included how frustrating it is that as a sector we are still talking about some people preferring face-to-face services and others digital. We know this.
If we are truly committed to increasing the profile of place-based leadership, what is it we need to do differently? How can leaders own the narrative around new technology and the capabilities it offers and empower staff to reimagine and deliver improved services for our communities?

We are increasingly seeing how the use and application of data insight is helping us make informed and better decisions. Can we leverage the benefit of this approach to mainstream its adoption across the sector? It was refreshing to keep the end user at the heart of this discussion but how can we build the collaboration and commitment to drive people and places up the agenda?

How can Socitm, its members and wider networks make a difference? What needs to change? A way forward may be to use data and digital to inform and improve human interaction, rather than replace it.

Two big questions emerged during conversation, the first being how do we encourage local authorities to work together? Answers include developing a shared recognition that devolution can help create new opportunities to improve local digital public service capabilities and practice across local systems, structures and economies. Data sharing is key to this, with its potential to help create area-wide information and financial systems that can adopt the latest in AI and emerging technologies. The emphasis on creating effective partnerships to collaborate, share assets, resources and expertise where possible is instrumental to achieving successful outcomes across place.

The second big question was, how do we bring political, executive, community leaders and suppliers with us? The focus should be on the way devolution is changing how local government works and starting to blur the boundaries between local government and industry. Emerging technology is changing decision making such as by harnessing generative AI and service delivery, while new opportunities are emerging for suppliers to partner in development of citizen-focused local services and capabilities that support both growth in local economies and environmental sustainability. We can build confidence and provide reassurance for our senior leaders through demonstrating where these approaches are working well.

There were other key points, one being that we have been working on technology-driven public services for at least two decades and they are still not delivering the extra capacity they promised. The Labour government elected in 1997 said it would have all services online by 2005, freeing staff time for frontline services. We know this is the wrong way to approach service delivery. So what do we do next? How do we take the principle of excellence in service delivery and strive for that across all our places?

Furthermore, we do not know how to describe the people we serve, and we sometimes use language that alienates them. Are they people, citizens, customers, service users? Is the word ‘digital’ getting in the way? How do ‘smart cities’ sound to people who do not live in cities? We need to make our language attractive and relevant to a variety of audiences. Linked to this, how do we cater for local differences?

It is vital we understand that what might be right for a city, may not be right for a rural area. A uniform place-based approach could lead to an unintentional loss of localism.

Artificial intelligence and emerging technologies

Day two focused on how AI can help places and communities to thrive while guarding against its risks. Participants agreed that people are our priority, meaning public services must put the public at the heart of what they do by connecting and enabling those who live and work in a place. It was important to ensure that people rather than technology remain central to our concept of connected and sustainable places – that in effect ‘people make places’.

There are permanent challenges and opportunities. Innovative technologies have always created challenges for local authorities as they consider their applicability and adoption. It is worth noting that these commonplace challenges are most effectively met through sharing of experiences and expertise and collaboration between people. We need to do far more of this. To make use of emerging technologies, including AI, will require collaboration and learning from both the rest of the public sector and the private sector, through sharing case studies and stories. In parallel, organisations will need to build their skills, capabilities and capacities to support the change. As already discussed in day one, there is a need for common language that is widely understood, rather than shorthand technologists tend to adopt.

The public sector needs to establish common standards where possible and relevant to aid data sharing and integration, improve data quality and reliability, increase data usability and accessibility, and enable more efficient and effective data analysis. It needs to modernise procurement, particularly as AI changes things rapidly. The public sector needs to develop flexible and agile responses to ensure these changes have a positive impact. The adoption of a stewardship role by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) is a welcome development, and the planned revision of the Local Digital Declaration provides an opportunity to strengthen central-local collaboration.

Have your say

We’ve tried to give you the key insights and highlights from two days of intense debate and discussion, which we will use to inform further development of Socitm Institute work. But have we got it right? Without restrictions, what needs to be done differently? What role does Socitm play in this? Just some questions we welcome feedback on to ensure we’re informed by the people who matter. Your feedback will also contribute to Socitm’s wider international work with our partners. We need to build an international collaborative knowledge-sharing platform to support you, our policy makers and practitioners.

We suggest the calls to action from our time at St George’s House are to establish common data standards across the public sector to establish common AI terminology and guidance; to encourage the sharing of best practice and what works to prevent the reinvention of the wheel across the sector; and to facilitate and enable closer place-based collaboration around public, private, academic, research and third sector to support the creation of communities of interest and practice around the themes of connected, resilient and sustainable places in the era of AI.

Building on the concept of ‘connected places’, we can see the potential for collaboration, around the following common themes of focus on connectivity, place-based adoption of AI, data-driven decision making, improving quality of life in communities and sustainability and resilience.

Contact us at or join a local meeting near you. We’d love to hear from you and welcome your feedback.

Read more: October 2023 consultation on AI (PDF)

Personal view: A long ride to professional heights

Kurt Frary, Norfolk head of IT and Socitm vice-president, on commercial experience, artificial intelligence and Top Talent

A man on a motorcycle traveling on a tarmac road with a rolling valley spreading beyond him. At the end of the valley the hills rise into towering mountains
Kurt Frary traveling through the Alps on his motorcycle

About Kurt Frary

Kurt joined Norfolk County Council after taking a national diploma in computer studies at Norwich City College, where he gained a distinction in microprocessor-based systems. He transferred to Capita in 2000 when the county outsourced its technology work, then successfully applied to return to Norfolk in 2003 where he led work on systems integration. He served as deputy director of ICT from 2014 and was promoted to head of IT in March 2023.

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

I went to Norwich City College, wrote to 100 employers and the first and only one that replied was Norfolk County Council. I started here as a computer operator on IBM and ICL mainframes, watched the introduction of the first personal computers and would you believe the internet. I am probably one of the rare people in a role like this who hasn’t got a degree.

After a number of years in various roles including senior operator, chief operator, desktop analyst and network analyst I was part of an outsourcing to Capita, where I was looking after Norfolk but also worked on a contract for the DVLA in Bedford. This got me noticed and put on ‘The Capita 100 programme’ which put people through training to solve business problems, and that too helped me become more senior. However, I didn’t fancy all the travelling as I had a very young family, so decided to approach Norfolk to ask ‘would you like me back’ and they did, so I returned. Ironically, a couple of months later the Capita contract was cancelled and everyone got transferred back anyway.

I had always had the ambition to be the head of IT but I had challenges on the way, such as when the council advertised the post saying the role had to have a degree, which really annoyed me as I was doing work which was equivalent. But hey, I made it.

I am quite lucky to have worked in both the commercial and the public sector, as they have different outlooks, work and do things so differently. Capita taught me commercial organisations have a much greater focus on money, while the public sector has a greater focus on outcomes and having attention on both really is helpful. I have learnt a lot from both organisations which enables me to talk to anyone however senior or junior and still have a meaningful conversation.

Q. As head of IT, how are you approaching artificial intelligence

We see artificial intelligence as an opportunity to embrace and are hopefully seen as one of the leaders in the sector. We focus on three main areas, firstly how can we use AI to help staff in their roles, whether administration or answering queries. The second is can we use AI to help us make better decisions as an organisation and the third, which we haven’t explored in detail yet as we are being cautious, is how can we use AI to interact with the public.

I created and chair the council’s AI governance board which is really exciting as it brings senior leaders in our organisation together to discuss, understand, oversee and manage the implementation and approach of AI. We appreciate this is new to staff in and out of work so we run drop-in sessions on Microsoft Teams where anyone can come along, ask any questions and I will give an honest answer. 277 people turned up to the last session.

More than 300 staff are already piloting the use of Microsoft Copilot 365 for activities such as taking minutes in Teams meetings or notes for the adult social care system and this is going to make a massive difference by releasing officers’ time to help people. We have also given Copilot Free to all staff through a browser for odd things they have to create such as communications notes or a training plan.

The council has set up a proof of concept of using Microsoft Copilot Studio to enable staff to find internal information more easily. You can point it at a store of documents then use a natural language chatbot to find material, something that took us just half an hour to set up. For Freedom of Information requests it could consistently retrieve all the information, see if we have already responded, improve performance and allow the person making the request to ask additional questions. The challenge is to make sure it is accurate and up to date, so we are trying it internally before considering direct public access. Separately, for adult social care, we are trialling Xantura AI to identify people at risk of falling or loneliness.

AI has a role in supporting staff in their roles enabling them to do more, because more and more people need help. This is about us doing more things and helping more people with the same number of staff.

Q. What has been your biggest project as head of IT so far?

We have just gone through a complete network transformation. We had a traditional star-wired legacy network across all 221 locations in Norfolk which were configured in the traditional hub-spoke configuration including our data centres. Since the end of March, we have replaced every connection with direct business-grade internet access circuits, using encryption to talk to our data centres. This removed the need to have a traditional network supplier, reduced cost and complexity and makes the network safer and more secure. For Office 365 access our laptops connect straight to Microsoft which improves performance significantly. Overall, it means fewer service outages and our people can work from anywhere with a network connection.

Q. How did you get involved with Socitm?

Socitm put on its first Top Talent course in Wales, it sounded a bit like the programme I did at Capita and I thought it’s a long way but wouldn’t it be good to get to know some of my peers in Wales? Something clicked, the course made me feel as though I had been holding back in my role – I came back a very different person and started changing what I was doing in my role and in my personal life as well.
Now when anybody asks me to do anything my first response is always yes then I consider how I can make it work, rather than ‘ooh, there’s all these things that will stop me doing it’. That fundamental shift in how you think makes a big difference and I got that from Top Talent. It led to me being Socitm’s Eastern regional chair and then putting my name forward to be vice-president. It has fundamentally changed my life.

Q. What do you enjoy doing outside work?

I built an arcade machine by getting some MDF, cutting out the shape, painting it, building it, spraying it and putting in the screen, an old TV. It is all handmade mostly from recycled parts. I am working on a second one in the shed – it will take me a year by the time I get around to doing all the different bits.

I am also a very keen motorcyclist. Last year I travelled to the Alps on the bike, rode around the amazing scenery then all the way back, a seven-day trip through France and Italy. I also have a YouTube channel, MunkyBunky, to help other people with motorcycles.

Socitm overview: Place-based leadership course aims to build skills and resilience

Socitm is launching a new training course on place-based leadership that is designed to develop skills and resilience.

The two-day, in-person course is designed to refine leadership approaches, enabling participants to inspire both people and places towards lasting change with impact.

The course explores the significance of focusing on better outcomes for people and communities, encouraging participants to broaden their ambitions and perspective. It is specifically tailored for the public sector with its unique and substantial rewards and challenges. It aims to build connections with peers from other authorities and share experiences to gain insights into how to implement improvements and foster collaboration.

“This course is for leaders who want to stretch their thinking, grow their network and access valuable time-saving resources,” says Aidan Matthews, Socitm’s learning programme manager.

The course, which was successfully piloted in September last year, is intentionally limited to 12 participants to ensure personalised support and an intimate learning environment, allowing for deep, meaningful discussions and the opportunity to form strong networks with fellow leaders.

“This course is for leaders who want to stretch their thinking, grow their network and access valuable time-saving resources”

Aidan Matthews, Socitm

Day 1: collaboration across place

The importance of collaboration across place: why place-based approaches are crucial and how Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’ model of environmentally and socially sustainable development can inform ethical digital placemaking.

Strategic alignment and shared purpose: understand how to align strategic priorities to achieve common outcomes and define ambitions and priorities.

Empathy and emotional intelligence: engage in empathy mapping to enhance emotional intelligence and better understand the root causes of issues. This will include discussion of ‘wicked problems’ which resist solutions and usually involve complex, interdependent issues.

Fostering positive relationships: develop strategies for building a collaborative culture and robust inter-agency working relationships. This includes negotiation, managing and influencing stakeholders and acting as an intelligent client.

Day 2: effective leadership and better outcomes for all

Trust and human interactions: delve into developing trust, effective relationship building and stakeholder management through negotiation and influence.

Designing brilliant services: focus on creating responsive, accessible services using customer-centric design principles, tackling digital exclusion and co-creating with community representation.

Problem-solving and innovation: learn about problem-solving approaches and tools for user-centred service design to ensure solutions are effective and inclusive.

The course will help delegates become more adaptive, such as through techniques to manage in turbulent times and work with both other leaders and the rest of the workforce; be inclusive, such as through digital accessibility; and be resourceful, through knowledge of governance models, decision-making techniques and budget considerations. It will cover good practices for digital transformation, including sharing and analysing data and using it ethically, as well as change management tools and techniques.

Sessions will be delivered by Sam Smith, director of Socitm Institute, and Aidan Matthews. Socitm plans to run an initial course on 3-4 September in Birmingham then on 14-15 November at AWS’ Manchester offices near Victoria station.

Socitm overview: Socitm’s seven values

Group of people in a circle with their hands together in the centre
Source: fauxels via Pexels

When you think of a favourite brand, you can usually come up with a few words to describe it in a way that sums up why you like what it does. Companies work hard to come up with phrases that sum up their brands in ways that are simple, descriptive and to the point. The successful ones then deliver based on these values, whether BMW’s quest to build the ultimate driving machine or Great Ormond Street Hospital putting the child first and always, its mission since it was established in 1852.

Since achieving charity status, Socitm has taken the opportunity to look at how we deliver for our members. Below are the seven values which we are driven by.

1. Actionable resources: keeping it simple

Take action based on proven evidence

  • Adopt and adapt your plans based on ‘what works’.
  • Power your strategies with local government best practice.

2. Cost-effective insight: generating value

Data fed by the sector for the sector

  • Make informed decisions based on essential insights.
  • Cost-effective data insight at your fingertips.

3. People and place focused: it’s all about you

Build stronger connected places and communities

  • Power innovation with people and communities at its core.
  • Socitm members pioneer change through simplifying and sharing.

4. Ignite growth: sowing the seeds

Empowering future leaders in local government

  • Leadership programmes that ignite growth – driving positive change in people, organisations and communities.
  • Training programmes tailored to give local government leaders the skills, contacts and know-how required for today’s pace and scale of change.
  • Building resilience and authenticity in the workplace.

5. Innovation: looking ahead

Join the movement: driving change together

  • Socitm change-makers work together for a brighter future.
  • Together, Socitm members power change to create a positive impact in the places they live and work.

6. Speak truth to power: a collective voice

Influencing national policy

  • Be part of a critical mass that engages at national levels.
  • Represent sector views in key areas of government policy.

A spirit of collaboration: no one is better than all of us

Your gateway to success

  • Seamless access to resources and opportunities through collaboration.
  • Solve wicked problems by joining our vibrant communities of interest and practice.

Local and national events

Let’s actually do this more often! As well as our President’s Conference, we run local and national events throughout the year, in-person and online. Make the most of your membership, meet colleagues and expand your knowledge with Socitm events.

Discover all of Socitm’s events, programmes, courses, webinars and workshops

View events calendar

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