Interview: Andrew Grant, chief executive of the district council, talks about its commercial approach to the future, the potential for Amazon Alexa, and moving to local government version 4.0
Local government needs to become more entrepreneurial to survive, and digital technology is going to be a key feature according to Andrew Grant.
The chief executive of Aylesbury Vale District Council has made a few waves in recent years by talking up the need for local authorities to adopt a more commercial business model, and has raised eyebrows more recently in championing the prospects for Amazon’s Alexa intelligent personal assistant in public services.
He sees it as part of a strong connection between how new digital offerings can open up new business options for councils, and brighten the prospects for their long term future.
Grant has been with Aylesbury Vale since 2006, and was at the helm when in 2010 it adopted a digital strategy that involved a major shift to a cloud infrastructure – in which it became the first council in the country to use Amazon Web Services – and an increased use of software-as-a-service (SaaS).
Austerity was already biting at the time, and as it became clear that the council’s financial situation would become even tougher, he began to press for a radical change in the business model.
“It’s about moving away from begging for money the Government doesn’t have, towards creating an entrepreneurial/commercial approach,” he says. “It’s going from a start-up to getting enough cash coming into the organisation to pay for things people want to see.”
This involves the council continuing to provide its statutory services on a free basis, while arranging the provision of others as a broker between the public and business customers and suppliers. It comes down to using the council’s reputation as a means of winning a share of a market for services for which people are willing to pay, and using the revenue to support the more crucial services.
It has developed two brands. Limecart provides home and garden services such as cleaning, decorating and gardening; while Incgen provides small businesses with office space facilities and support in areas such as training, virtual office facilities and online marketing.
Part of the latter has been facilitated by the council’s move to cloud services, which has sharply reduced its physical footprint and enabled it to offer office space in its buildings.
“We want to bring its members into forums, and start a community so they can feed off each other’s experience,” Grant says. “Then we want to start up a community interest company to channel funds that are available from around government through Incgen.”
Both of these operate on subscription models and have early adopters signed up, although he acknowledges that this is a “hard gig” and that the council is using the option of one-off deals to win people’s support for the services and sell them up to subscriptions.
Meanwhile, he sees a potential in Amazon Alexa to play a central role in the Limecart operation, reacting to requests to provide household services through its voice activated artificial intelligence functions. This could grow into an element of specialised services to support older people living at home.
Aylesbury Vale is already well into testing the use of the technology, building a skills process to align with the service and running a series of trials for specific council processes.
It derives the information it uses from the council’s new website and its online My Account service for residents, which is taking on the data previously held in legacy systems and now has about 35,000 people signed up – from zero a year ago.
“They understand they want to self-serve their way through the day rather than phoning us, and Alexa gives them a voice operated version in the home to do that,” Grant says.
“Amazon Alexa offer is so powerful because it can get your information on basic services and questions, and in future will be able to iterate across different public sector platforms, such as in getting a prescription or arranging car parking.”
Other elements of the council’s Connected Knowledge strategy, published earlier this year, include a completion of the SaaS policy, or “getting into browser based everything” as Grant says. It also involves using G-Cloud as the prime procurement channel, developing smart cities applications and building a single platform to integrate data and systems – also to be named Connected Knowledge.
Grant says he is generally agnostic about suppliers, being ready to use any technology that serves the council’s business model, and that if necessary it will be prepared to switch along the way.
He also sees a long term potential in wearable technology that interacts with verification mechanisms to understand what products or services an individual might require.
There is also what he sees as a logical progression, albeit a slow moving one, for local government. He says that many councils are still rooted in the model – 1.0 as he calls it – that emerged after World War Two, in which an authority provides specific services funded by taxation with the public knowing little about the financial or operational details.
He says Aylesbury Vale is now into version 2.0, a more entrepreneurial approach that involves a strong focus on where people see a value – and he has no reservations describing them as customers rather than citizens.
The council is aiming to reach 3.0, in which it begins to make serious money from commercial services to finance its core activities. Grant says he wants it to run in the black, and that is where it will have “broken free from the gravitational pull of 1.0”.
Then comes 4.0, in which council has developed strong predictive skills, using its data to foresee social challenges and local issues before they become significant problems, and taking preventative action. This can apply to communities and individuals, and would play a crucial role in health and social care.
Plenty of other local authorities have got their eye on moving to that level, although few are talking about the route through 2.0 and 3.0 that Grant sees as the way forward. His emphasis on the entrepreneurial approach will still raise hackles in many councils.
But it is notable that, as with elsewhere in the public sector, making new uses of digital technology is seen as a pivotal element of the approach. In particular, plenty of people will be keeping an eye on what Aylesbury Vale does with Alexa.