How Digital Services can best meet citizen’s needs in times of Economic Pressure

PARTICIPANTS

Paul Boyd - Chief Information Officer, Medway Council
Cassandra Poll - Digital & Channels Lead, Oldham Council
Ian Brooks - Finance & Commercial Director, Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership
Sandra Taylor - Asst Director for IT & Digital, Worcester County Council
Jamie-Lee Fox - Technology Services Business Partner, Essex County Council
Wyn Roberts - Public Sector Strategy, Virgin Media O2 Business
James Wells - Local Government Lead, Virgin Media O2 Business

Hosted by Mark Lumley, Director of ICT and Digital at the London Borough of Hounslow and President of Socitm, the GB Roundtable How digital services can best meet citizen’s needs in times of economic pressure brought together local government IT leaders, who are largely responsible for delivering digital transformation, with representatives from Virgin Media O2 Business to discuss the issues facing the public sector and to share ideas about how to create a more inclusive, equitable and connected society.

As a result of Covid, local authority digital transformation efforts aiming to enable citizens to access essential services online have increased. This is despite strained local budgets due to decreased revenue from sources like tourism and local businesses. First on the roundtable agenda was funding in the post-Covid economic climate. What holds local authorities back from making investments in IT and connectivity?

Mark Lumley: “There’s an expectation that digital will magically save money and that isn’t necessarily the case. Getting the money out of the budget areas is a challenge and a barrier to us all doing more in the space. Often when battling for revenue funding, we are up against the kids’ playground, the potholes, the school. The things that will actually win the members’ votes.”

Ian Brooks: “Revenue funding is incredibly scarce. Members don’t understand digital as well as other services, such as road and highways, adult social care etc. There’s an education that needs to happen internally to help people understand the benefits of digital to the people approving the decisions.”

Paul Boyd: “In my experience, it’s been very difficult to articulate that improving our processes will be immediately linked to revenue savings of XYZ, detailed down to the penny. It’s such a difficult thing to quantify. It isn’t like buying something that’s going to replace staff - it’s more conceptual.”

Sandra Taylor: “Because of the political process, we are constantly getting new people in, often of the generation that aren’t engaged in digital and don’t understand it. You’d think over the years we’d move forward, but we don’t because of the political cycle.”  

“The Local Government Association has produced guidance for members, but from what I can see, take up of that is low. We need to keep focus on making sure our leaders understand the importance. Cyber Security, for instance, is often really challenging with councillors. They are often quite dismissive of it.”

The skills challenge - finding and retaining the right people

A huge challenge in digital delivery is the necessity for government agencies to maintain a skilled IT workforce. While salary levels, retention bonuses and various other financial incentives on offer in the private sector are not possible in most public bodies, the panel discussed potential strategies to overcome the hurdle, which is now higher than ever.
 
Jamie-Lee Fox: “An advantage of the ‘giving something back’ approach in recruiting for the public sector was always flexibility. Now, most private sector companies offer that flexibility, partly due to their experiences through Covid. The competition from, and losing staff to, other local public sector organisations is also an issue.”

“Also, the tech within local authorities isn’t seen as exciting anymore. You don’t tend to get graduates coming in to make that difference. We need to look at ways to encourage people to come in and make it more exciting.”

Sandra Taylor: “The salary increases in local government are far behind what’s going on in the private sector, but in terms of the skills, local authorities are in a fantastic place to grow their own.  We can offer great alternatives to university. We’ve got our Apprentice Levy and we really need to be maximising the opportunities that this gives us.”  

“If you bring on people through apprenticeships, even sandwiched with university, you can get some real loyalty in those people. We can give people huge opportunities.”

“In terms of it not being as innovative as the private sector, there are very few private businesses that cover the breadth of services that local government does. We use every type of technology. We have every type of service. It’s interesting and exciting. We just don’t package it up as well as we perhaps could. We need a makeover.”

Cassandra Poll: “In attracting skills from the private sector, we need to be more aware of hybrid working. We need to harness that power. While we can’t compete on salaries, young people are looking for a work/life balance. Even though private companies work to deliver that, in essence, many don’t do it properly. We’ve seen quite a lot of success with that, and make sure it’s top of our agenda.”

Wyn Roberts: “When we sell into the public sector, from the outset we try and find out the reason. Then you see the benefit to the public, which has a real impact on peoples’ lives. It’s much more exciting and you don’t get that in the private sector. I’m not saying there’s no frustrations, because there are, but everyone needs to understand the outcomes of what you are trying to achieve. It’s critical to have that motivation.”

Connecting the citizens

Fibre broadband deployment is essential for economic development, education, healthcare, and overall quality of life. The regulatory processes needed to make it easier and more cost-effective for ISPs to deploy fibre infrastructure have sometimes been a stumbling block, but engagement has been key to overcome this.

Geographical differences between city authorities and those in rural areas mean that one size certainly does not fit all. In Hounslow, the authority has engaged with senior leaders in all fibre providers/ISPs in order to encourage investment. A huge reduction in the number of premises with poor broadband reception (1716 premises in 2021, down to 799 premises in Sept 22) was the result.

In Cheshire, the figures are vastly different, as Ian Brooks explains:

“We probably have 20-30,000 residencies that still have connectivity issues. In a recent study we undertook into understanding the barriers into digital connectivity, we looked at two sides. On the supply side and the infrastructure, it’s generally quite good. Improvements are being made through Gigabit projects, voucher schemes and private sector suppliers.”

Getting the message and the skills out there - both externally and internally

Much investment has already been made in rural and fibre broadband. Getting the message out there about what digital services are available, targeting difficult to reach audiences, making sure that vulnerable citizens are catered for and providing them with the skills to take part in a digital community, represent a huge challenge.

Ian Brooks continued: “Where we do see the challenge is on the demand side - affordability, skills and confidence and also attitudinal issues. For instance, we have some affluent areas where people simply do not want to be part of the digital community. There are worries about that.”

This year, the Hounslow Gets Digital series of public events saw the council, along with its private sector partners, open up various sites to the public to explain the digital services it offers, teach digital skills and advertise the help available to get citizens connected, such as Social Broadband tariffs, free Wi-Fi access in libraries etc. However, as Mark Lumley points out:

“There are sometimes issues around the definition of digital and what digital means. Certain messages are difficult to get across.”

Sandra Taylor: “It’s not just the IT and Digital Teams which are leading on this. We are reliant on other local public bodies. From the health perspective, our ICS colleagues have invested really heavily in ICT systems, but how do you get people to take this up and change how they work?”

“The pandemic became the parting of the seas. The people that can do digital, got more digital. Those that couldn’t became more isolated.”

“We’re looking at investing in Digital Inclusion officers, along with a tool for our website which can be used by all staff and our NHS partners, where staff can be talking to people who are digitally excluded to assess their issues - whether its connectivity issues, no data on their phone, lack of skills or a language barrier. The tool can be used to create a persona around what their need is, and put them in touch with all the resources within the community. Critically, we need our staff and partners to be using that tool.”

Paul Boyd: “Our strategy has been about customer choice. The majority of our residents want to use digital services. Even when we don’t advertise them, they just seem to find them, so we’ve been lucky that we haven’t needed to focus too much on soft launches or communications.”
   
“We want to improve our digital offering so it’s easy to use and customers wouldn’t want to use anything else. However, we also want to use technology to improve telephony and face to face. So, it’s not seen as trying to move people. It’s offering that choice, but we know that people will naturally move.”

Jamie-Lee Fox: “Research has shown that if you can’t teach your parents, you may have more success with your grandparents. We have workshops going on in libraries and community centres where young people enrolled in the Duke of Edinburgh Award, engage with two generations above, showing them how to use various digital services, banking apps etc. We also have a lot going on with food banks, where people likely to be digitally excluded visit. We have a laptop scheme, and mobile phones they can collect.”

Ian Brooks: “To address demand side and inclusivity, local authorities within our patch have activities along with a lot of the third sector. The NHS did a really good mapping exercise of the potential risk of deprivation that followed on from Covid.”

“In Merseyside, they surveyed as many organisations as possible and mapped what public assets are available. This discovered the times these services are available don’t necessarily match the demand.”

“Also, these organisations were poorly connected, and there was a lack of understanding and coordination between them about what they were each doing. One of the next steps for us is maintaining this network we’ve created from the study, so delivering the demand side can be a bit better and the co-operation between authorities and the third sector can be improved.”

Legacy technology issues

In moving the digital transformation agenda forward, a significant concern for government agencies is legacy technology. As well as being costly to maintain, outdated systems are often unable to accommodate security best practices, such as multi-factor authentication and single-sign on - now seen as essential with the increase in hybrid working. Legacy systems can also slow down the development of new services as Cassandra Poll explains:  

“We have a lot of legacy tech, but the process of getting new technology over the line is tricky. You have procurement, IG, testing. These act as barriers to trying new things and can be demotivating for staff to not get these things over the line as quickly as you’d hope.”

Paul Boyd: “We suffer from legacy systems. You end up on a treadmill where you run out of time and must renew the contract. We need to break that cycle.”  

Focus on PSTN switch off

Decommissioning the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), which has traditionally been the backbone of landline telephone communication, will be completed by December 2025. This has particular implications for the elderly, as James Wells explains:

“From a local authority perspective, there are around 80 different services that rely on PSTN and are potentially at risk, from lift phones and POS machines through to water metering and traffic light telemetry services.

“From a vulnerable citizen perspective, where always-on telephony is required, there’s further considerations rather than just migrating to broadband. The PTSN operates on copper wires, which have a voltage delivered over them, required by certain devices that use it. When these get migrated onto fibre-based services, there will be a need for localised power. As PTSN was traditionally used as a backup, a solution needs to be considered that backs this up, such as a UPS.”

“Potentially, there’s a massive amount of work to be undertaken before December 2025 to understand what that legacy infrastructure looks like. It’s a problem that people aren’t aware of, or are wanting to ignore, but it should be taken seriously.”

Wyn Roberts: “There is a calendarised timetable for every area. This isn’t an issue where you can go to your local account manager and ask to put that date back a few months. It’s set in stone.”

Helping local authorities tackle the social value challenge

As well as supplying technological expertise and strategies and ensuring that IT systems can adapt to changing needs and priorities, local authority partners can leverage resources, expertise and funding to maximise the impact of social value initiatives.

Mark Lumley: “There’s an essential role for our partners to be helping us drive this. This isn’t something local government can do by itself. Being the influencer is massively important, particularly in the green agenda.”

“We don’t just want to buy widgets anymore. We genuinely want to develop relationships with suppliers. Getting meaningful social value out of the massive contracts that we have is hugely important.

“It’s much more than just throwing in a few laptops at the end of a contract. The ambition is about really enabling the local area to learn and grow. Our partners can help to provide skills, education and employment into our areas. That’s massively more meaningful than a few laptops - but we want those as well!)”

“It’s easy to write something down on a contract, but getting it delivered in a meaningful way can be a challenge. There is an onus on us as local authorities to educate our partners in what we mean by social value. There’s more than we can, and should, do to highlight this.”

Jamie-Lee Fox: “At Essex, Social value makes up around 20 per cent of every procurement. Suppliers are made to submit an action plan, and I do think we are getting a lot back from that.”

James Wells: “Every discussion we have with a local authority focuses on outcomes. Historically, it was about the one system - telephony, CCTV - without understanding what the higher-level objectives were. Because the technology has emerged so far, we’re having discussions around location data, demographics of people, spending power and how that can influence local economic development.”

“We’re now talking about some of the IoT and AI solutions we can introduce to help with local authority decarbonisation commitments. Historically, it’s been a relationship with the IT manager or director. We are finding now that we are having much broader discussions with local authorities, and this helps to gel some of the internal relationships as well. We can help articulate how technology and digital can make a difference. Clearly, the IT director will have responsibility for procurement and delivery, but bridging some of the internal governance has helped.”

“It’s not just a technology assist. It’s helping to understand funding, some of the  programmes which are featuring technology, whether place-based or from a corporate perspective. We have a lot of industry focus groups looking at how we can support local government, so when we speak to our customers, we can help articulate that.”

Connect More Programme

“Outside of procurements, working with partners can meet some of the social value issues the local authorities are facing. We’ve developed a ‘Connect More’ Programme, where each of us at Virgin Media O2 Business has five paid volunteering days per year. Rather than picking up litter etc, we’ve looked at where our people are based around the UK, and asked local authorities where we can best impart our IT knowledge to help digitally enable citizens.”

FURTHER INFORMATION

Virgin Media O2 Business - Insights Hub

Local Digital - Digital Inclusion Toolkit

Socitm - the Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation

Hounslow Digital
 

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