You’ve recently rolled out a new digital strategy for North Lanarkshire. Why launch it and what are you hoping to achieve through it?
Anyone that knows North Lanarkshire will tell you just how diverse our region is. Children born in the most deprived areas have only got a 1 in 15 chance of getting to university, they’re just as likely to be involved in violent crime, life expectancy is shorter than average and they’re more likely to have health issues as they get older. That’s why we needed a digital strategy. We want to do something to improve the life chances for people born and bred in North Lanarkshire.
We identified two main questions that we wanted to address. Can we ensure those from deprived areas have the same chances in life as those from more affluent areas? And, can we make sure the economy of North Lanarkshire is able to provide a living for young people as they transition from education into the workplace?
What we’re trying to do is make North Lanarkshire a more positive place to live and if you look at the world today you can only do that if you have a properly thought out, fully deliverable digital strategy.
The world is moving in a digital direction and, in my opinion, the public sector as a whole is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of how we use digital technology to deliver our services.
How are you planning to achieve your aims?
While there are multiple strands to the strategy, we’re focusing on two main areas. Number one, we have to make sure access to council services through digital channels is not only improved but developed new from scratch. We’re keen to invent new channels into council services through digital media that don’t currently exist.
Secondly, we must ensure the council itself, in terms of how it deals with all of its transactional activity, are carried out as efficiently as possible so that we take away a lot of the human input so that we can divert staff involvement and skills elsewhere in the delivery chain. We would much rather see people skills diverted into the value end of the chain and add value to our services.
While our strategy is a North Lanarkshire one, wrapped around it is our close involvement with relevant enterprise agencies, infrastructure services and house building programmes to deliver the capacity within our communities that enable them to engage with us in a digital way. Improving broadband rollout across North Lanarkshire, digital skills within the wider community and ensuring all housing developments – we’ve got the largest social housing programme in Scotland – are digitally enabled.
There’s no point the council being digitally enabled and offering digital services if people can’t engage with us. Likewise, there’s no point our communities being digitally engaged if their council can’t respond. The place, the people and the council need to move forward in the same direction at the same pace.
Does that mean you’ll be involving your citizens in the design and development of your digital solutions?
I think there’s no other way to do it. I’ve said it before – if you go on Amazon you can order a pair of trainers and be running in them the next morning. Why is it that you order a new wheelie bin from the council and it takes five days to come? We might not have the national infrastructure that the big online companies do, but we can leverage our local customer base to identify pain points and areas of frustration with our services and work with those same people to find effective solutions.
Whether somebody wants to pay their council tax at a time that suits them, tell us that they’re entitled to a lone occupant discount because their son or daughter has moved out or they want to find out what benefits they can claim, it’s in the interests of both our citizens and the council to make it as easy as possible. If we can work out where the demand is then we can prioritise what we’re going to do and what services we need to make digital first – not only to save the council money but to achieve the maximum benefits for the largest audience.
In Scotland we have the Community Empowerment Act, which means we have a legal obligation to consult communities about service changes. We really will sit down with communities and say ‘we will be investing in our services to make them better – where do you think we should start?’
Does this highlight the fact that much of the technology being used by councils is relatively mainstream, consumer tech – and that transformation is now about what needs to change and be achieved rather than the technology behind it?
I think that’s right. When we’re talking to communities we’re well aware that talking about digital strategies, new hardware and software or the technology behind the scenes means absolutely nothing. This is about service change. The digital part is only a tool. And this is about the public sector learning cultural change. We’re not reinventing the wheel.
The tools that we’re using are available now and they’re not particularly cutting edge. But what we are at the forefront of is radically looking at how we can utilise these tools so that we can drive service change. You can invest in all the technology you want, but if service delivery doesn’t improve you’re not one step further forward. It’s not an IT project. Just as a new social transport initiative isn’t about bus engines!
It’s important to point out that the culture of change is just as important as the IT too. The public sector as a whole should be bolder in giving staff the authority to have a go and try something new. Unless you try something you just don’t know if it’ll work, so we must encourage a way thinking that prompts people to take ideas and run with them, without the fear of failure. The truth is, however, if something works for XYZ private company, nine times out of ten it’ll work in the public sector too. The same message should be sent to our citizens – their ideas are just as important, if not more so, than anybody else’s!
Focusing on the internal culture change, how are you managing that?
For us, we’ve built up the team internally, timed to coincide with the launch of the digital strategy and the naming of our transformation partner. Change here is about information, knowledge, feedback, review and making sure our staff, well in advance of any changes taking place, are aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing, what the benefits are, how they can be a part of it, how they can influence it and learn new skills and/or be redeployed.
Many of our team have probably never considered before what we’re asking them to do, so we have to work hard to make them understand it’s not about the jobs they do today but what’s to come and the skills needed five years from now.
The first part of our digital strategy hasn’t been about software or shiny new hardware – it has been about staff engagement and staff training needs. It’s a huge part of our investment in the council’s future.
Do you foresee any other barriers to a successful roll-out?
I could talk all day about barriers and hurdles, but they’re no different here to any other council. There will be the usual concerns about digital exclusion, the lack of human interaction and the loss of the personal touch, which is why we’re so keen to put the human contact at the value end of the equation. By diverting our staff time to the people who really do need the support, we’re better utilising our resources and delivering better services. It’ll also be more rewarding for our staff. Let’s move the value in the process to where it’s needed and turn the barriers into an opportunity.
I actually think the barriers are less significant than we imagine when we start off on our journey. The world operates digitally outside of the council. People use their smartphones for a whole range of different things, so it’s about tapping into that and building on it, serving the 95% and freeing up resources for the 5%.
What do you think will be your first successes?
While we’ve said that this our digital strategy for the next three to five years, we want to deliver change as soon as that change is identified. I don’t want a big bang – this will be rolled out in an evolutionary, staged process as the project develops.
Of course, councils have to operate more efficiently, so we’ll target change in a way that creates internal efficiencies, whether that’s some form of AI or software-led data management and analysis. Externally, we’ll first look at areas with greatest demand and need, which is why we’ll be doing a service-by-service appraisal to drill down and identify detailed business plans. Come back to meet later in the year and tell you more!