06 February 2020

Lessons for digital change from the new unitaries

Local government has always had to have an eye on the future and it is no surprise that digital change is a priority topic for the sector. The MJ and BT recently teamed up in Brockenhurst in the New Forest to hold the third of a series of round table events examining the impact of digital change with a focus on England’s South West in particular, Dorset, with its two new unitaries, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council and Dorset Council.

A major focus for the discussion with five council chief executives from across the South West – of which four were from unitary councils – was digitisation in the context of the two new unitary authorities, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council and Dorset Council which merged a number of councils into one in April 2019.

Participants felt it had been an exciting few months and the legitimacy for change had been ‘excellent’, but the process of unitisation was recognised as being one not without challenges. Among these were the degree of adjustment for both members and staff, as well as levels of integration needed to bring cultures and processes together.

One participant accepted they were on an eight-year plan to take the authority forward and digitisation was at the heart of aiding the journey. The participant said the scale of unitisation for some had been significant and merging several organisations, all with different teams and different processes has meant starting from ‘base one’.

As another participant put it: ‘Everything needs to be re-done. No consideration is taken of how different the authorities are. I haven’t found a single thing that’s done the same way.’ But on the plus side, the same participant said it was ‘exciting’ to get lots of big economic elements together, such as entertainment venues, and there were some ‘really good ingredients there’.

With issues and opportunities aplenty, it was felt there was to be ample scope for digitisation to offer solutions. One participant said: ‘We set a digital agenda for members and they were up for it, and it meant the shadow cabinet were able to set the agenda.’ They said that ‘on day one they got temporary kit’ and this helped members embrace the changes.

Getting members up to speed with the latest technology has, in this case, meant they have rapidly seen the breadth of service the organisation provides. But the participant went on: ‘Our big challenge is connections. Our connectivity speed is still low. It’s a real challenge for us in rural areas and it’s a main focus for us now.’

Another accepted the creation of new unitaries has caused some initial inefficiencies but added that the organisation was ‘all up for going forward digitally’.

Many have been working hard to deal with the challenge of different cultures following mergers – bringing staff together through initiatives such as employee forums.

This has allowed them to find out which values in their previous organisations staff prized and which they would ‘jettison in a heartbeat’. Then they have to put these behaviours together for everyone to fall behind.

One said: ‘We got members to sign up to the values and, with them being designed by staff, we are now rolling it out relentlessly.’

But for unitaries pulling several councils together, there is an acceptance that it is a fresh start. ‘You have to say it’s all new and we are starting again,’ as one put it. Ensuring middle managers are at the heart of change was seen as vital for several reasons and, in the words of one participant ‘they are recruiting the next generation’.

‘We have set up leadership forums for middle managers,’ said another. ‘They need to be seen as leaders and we need to allow them to say “I need some help”. It’s a whole new ball game and a whole new opportunity. They are there because they want to be there.’

One participant admitted it was a ‘fascinating’ process to be part of. Leading by example was key for another who said: ‘I don’t have any paper in my office. I believe if I can’t operate in that way how can I expect others to?’

Getting the benefits of digitisation on the front line was seen as key. ‘We are looking at how we can maximise the time our social workers spend out with customers,’ said one participant, before pointing out that the difficulty on the digital side was how to merge in older records.

Another pointed out they had found there was a real culture for social workers to go back to the office at the end of the day, with another pointing out that their creation of locality teams – so workers were based where they lived – was one way they were looking at addressing the issue.

However, another struck a note of caution, pointing out that there was a ‘real danger’ of staff becoming isolated through digital advancements when they ‘need to be socialising’ adding: ‘It’s about using the really good technology, but not losing that personal side.’

So what was the biggest change participants felt technology could offer for local authorities? For one it was ‘assessment of eligibility’ for services. ‘This goes right through from questions such as “which bin do I need to put out this week?” to “what services am I eligible for?”’

Another pointed out the potentially huge benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) for ‘relieving the monotony’ for some staff such as those working in call centres. Another pointed out that there was often a tendency to look at digitisation and AI from the perspective of service efficiencies for the organisation, rather than from the perspective of customer need. It was felt this was something organisations had to be conscious of.

The possibilities offered up by digitisation were exciting for many. ‘There are huge amounts of processes that could be taken out,’ said one. ‘People do things like banking online, but they want face-to-face contact with the council. When you ask them why this is, they don’t know. ‘If we can tackle this, we can put the focus of faceto-face contact on the services that need it.’

While digitisation was welcomed as a vital tool to helping new councils advance, there was a note of scepticism from one participant who worried the need for reorganisation could be overdone, when councils should just be better at working together.

‘We could work much more together if we just dropped the power games. I’m slightly wary about all the transitional aggravation and all the work to get it to where you want it to be. It’s the transition, it takes years to see the light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a lot of effort.’

Another agreed that there was much for councils to do to work together, adding: ‘I think it’s a role for the Local Government Association (LGA) to be doing more to bring us together.’

Another concluded that one of the crucial benefits of unitisation was the degree to which it made it easier to bring organisations together and achieve significant efficiencies.

And that seemed to be the crux of the matter. Lots of things are possible and it is just a question of how hard they are to achieve.

Digitisation is an enabler to helping local authorities embrace the potential of the future without having to try and push water uphill.

Samantha Toombs – BT Enterprise South West director and board chair, said: 'Local authorities across the South West are embracing digital and accelerating the opportunities digital presents. Digitisation is a key enabler for unitaries that offers a catalyst, not only to changes in technology but a shift in organisational leadership style, behaviours and culture too.

'Overall, exploitation of digital technology and connectivity was highly regarded by the group as an accelerator in the delivery of modern citizen services where expectations of local authority services are no less than the bar set by the likes of Amazon.

'It was discussed that one of the biggest challenges is low connectivity speeds but the evolution of 5G, which is being rolled out across the UK, will bring better, more reliable connectivity. It is worth mentioning that BT is a key partner of the RuralFirst initiative, developing cutting-edge connectivity solutions beyond cities, as it looks to solve these challenges in rural areas.

'If places in the South West are successful in transforming the citizen services they provide, as well as growing the local economy and remaining an attractive place for people to live, work and visit, digital and connectivity is a musthave enabler that should remain a constant priority. But will digital remain this way given the volatility and uncertainty within the UK, with new Governments, elected members and Brexit? How quickly will step changes such as AI and robotics be introduced given everything else going on in parallel? It will be interesting to check in again later this year to find out.

'We will be continuing the conversation, as well as discussing the Government’s agenda for devolution and regional policy, at the next The MJ/BT round table in Bristol, taking place on 27 February. If you’d like any details on that event – which will be written up in The MJ – please contact Shadi Malkawi at shadi.malkawi@bt.com'

BT is proud to employ nearly 8,000 people across the South West, spends £211m per annum with local suppliers in the region, as well as contributing £1.3bn GVA per annum associated with BT Group Activities

The MJ/BT round table attendees:
Bob Jackson – Chief executive, New Forest DC
Graham Farrant – Chief executive, Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council
Matt Prosser – Chief executive, Dorset Council
John Metcalfe Chief executive, Isle of Wight Council
Susie Kemp - Chief executive, Swindon BC
Michael White - BT
Samantha Toombs - South West Board, BT
Shadi Malkawl - Head of Client Partners, BT
Michael Burton - The MJ (chair)

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