Innovation and changeDigital TransformationDelivering lasting change on a shoestring: the Wigan story

Delivering lasting change on a shoestring: the Wigan story

The judges praised Wigan Council’s innovation and leadership, saying it provides “a blueprint for British local government and beyond”

GovTech Leaders spoke to Alison McKenzie-Folan, Chief Executive of Wigan Council, which was recently named Council of the Year at the LGC Awards 2019.

Passionate about the public sector

Can you tell me a little bit about your background prior to becoming Wigan Council’s Chief Executive?

“Well, I’ve worked for Wigan for ten years – prior to becoming chief executive I was the deputy chief executive, and before that I was Head of HR for three years. I’ve also worked in the Civil Service, spending 18 years in the Health and Safety Executive.

“Overall, I’ve had quite a mixed career really with policy, corporate, technical and operational experience, as well as a stint in the NHS. I’m public sector through and through – that’s what I’m really passionate about.”

Third-worst area to be hit by austerity

What main problems did the council face in the years prior to you becoming Chief Executive?

“Probably the same as everyone else – we’ve had a 40% reduction in our budget and austerity has hit us hard since 2011. In fact, The Institute for Fiscal Studies quotes Wigan as the third-worst area to be hit, so we’ve been on a long, tough journey.

“What’s really helped us has been changing the narrative – we knew that we had to take a different approach. Our journey has revolved around changing the relationship between all of us: the public bodies, the local council, and our residents.

“We’ve really focussed on community empowerment. We wanted to get our residents involved in everything that we do, as well as being incredibly clear to them about what we can do as a council given our shrinking resources.

“Our strategy, which we call The Deal, has revolved around getting communities involved to bring about solutions.”

Positive outcome of being community-led

So, you tried to make it very community-led and frame this as a big win rather than speaking about the fact that you were losing funding?

“Precisely. We were adamant that we wouldn’t be closing libraries, that we wouldn’t be closing children’s centres – the things that matter most to the communities – and, actually, those places become even more important when there are financial difficulties and communities are feeling isolated.

“The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive, and we’ve even been able to freeze Council Tax as a consequence of getting residents involved. For example, recycling rates have gone up 80%, which saves more than a million pounds per year. We’re one of only two councils across the country to freeze council tax this year.

“Our whole workforce has also gone through training which emphasises listening, not making assumptions, and moving away from the traditional ticklist approach of local government. We want to have a different sort of approach where we find out what makes people happy and try to integrate these ideas into their communities.”

Delivering lasting change on a shoestring: the Wigan story

Digital as part of a strategy that empowers citizens

The judges on the LGC awards panel praised Wigan Council for its innovation – has digitisation played a big part in what you’ve been doing?

“Yes, we like to pride ourselves on being digital pioneers and we’ve actually won Digital Council of the Year twice. We see digital as part of a strategy that empowers citizens.

“We’ve invested in our ability to be a service provider, such as improving our website and improving our digital platform, but then we’ve also spent a lot of time around supporting the residents and business with their digital skills.

“Our digital exclusion rate has reduced dramatically – in 2015 it was medium and now it’s low, according to the Lloyd’s Consumer Index, so this shows that the work we’ve been doing really helps. We’ve also been a pioneer council for the Inspiring Digital Enterprise Awards that the Duke of York introduced to champion digital skills.

“For instance, we had a conference for 150 Year Eight girls where they could network and talk to leaders in the tech industry about what it meant to be a coder or what it meant to work as a software developer.

“There are a wealth of potential opportunities and jobs in this sector, and they’re only going to increase going forward because of the skill shortage – so we want to introduce that to our residents at a young age.

“We’ve done a lot of work around the digital growth service as 87% of our businesses are small to medium employers, so they don’t necessarily have in-house digital skills. The question was: how can we support them with e-commerce, or enhancing their product offerings?

“Lastly, another area of focus for us has been technology-enabled care, to support people in adult social care and help them live independently for longer.

“The digital journey has been really important and at the heart of a lot of the work that we’ve been doing. The main challenge has been taking all of these different innovations and making them work for us.”

Digital-first strategy as a community challenge

What was the hardest part of that process? Was it implementing the technology or was it trying to bring about a general shift in mindset – not only within the council but also amongst the residents?

“I don’t think it’s the technology itself, I think it’s about making the digital-first strategy a real priority and getting all the stakeholders on board. We’ve been really lucky as we’ve got a number of great partners.

It was also important to frame this as not just a council initiative but as a community challenge, to work out how we can tackle digital exclusion and the problems that it causes together.”

The Big Listening Project

What’s in the pipeline for Wigan Council?

“To inform the next chapter of The Deal we embarked on a major listening exercise called The Big Listening Project. We had a big green sofa that went out to supermarkets, GPs, schools, residential areas, community centres – you name it – we went to 83 locations with a green sofa and struck up a conversation with our residents.

“We said to them, ‘Tell us where you want to be in 2030, tell us your dreams and ambitions – what do you want for this borough?’ In total, we talked to about 6,000 people and tried to bring their ideas together into a set of priorities for the next ten years which we’ve named ‘Deal 2030’.

“We’ve got ten key areas which we’re going to push really hard on, things like town centres. People want to do things in the town centre; they see it as a place to go, a place to all come together.

“They’re saying to us ‘I don’t want to go to Manchester, I don’t want to go to Liverpool’. Overall, we’re getting a sense that people are really proud of their borough, proud of where they live, and so how do we build on that?

“Providing opportunities for young people is an obvious priority that was highlighted. Where are the jobs in the future? How can we raise aspiration and ambition amongst in our communities?

“Another big focus revolves around the green agenda, around clean air and recycling. This is now becoming a big issue and something that a lot of our young people are incredibly passionate about.

“Finally, our residents have told us that they want greater community involvement, for communities to care for each other and to foster a real sense of community cohesion.

“Whilst these issues are far from new, it was good for us to hear that this is what our residents want for the future. Our task now is to concentrate on delivering what people are talking about.”

Read more about Wigan Council winning Council of the Year 2019 here.

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