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Cardiff sets sights on ‘digital by default’


Interview: Isabelle Bignall, chief digital officer at Cardiff City Council, talks about ambitions for smart cities, technology for the over-85s and what it could do with bots

It’s very early days for Isabelle Bignall as Cardiff City Council’s chief digital officer. She has been in the post for less than a month, but with years in senior roles in the council’s customer services operation she already has a strong sense of its priorities for digital change.

One of these has already been met with the creation of the role, focused on developing an end-to-end digitisation of council services, beyond what she describes as “bolting on” digital to existing processes.

Talking with UKAuthority at the Smart Wales and Connected Communities event, staged with Microsoft, she says: “Through no fault of anybody we have had a lack of leadership in the digital arena. Watching other local authorities appoint digital officers has become a key driver for Cardiff.

“We didn’t have this post before. It’s a new position and a recognition that we weren’t getting our strategy right. It’s a real focus for the administration to say ‘This is how seriously we’re taking the digital space’, with a large remit and some challenges.”

A significant change in the council’s digital estate has already begun, with a council-wide migration to using the Office 365 platform. Just over 600 staff are already using it, but a wider roll out to more than 4,000 is due to begin in July.

This is aimed at delivering efficiencies but should also lay the ground for wider adoption of the Microsoft stack: the council is looking at how it can use products such as Power BI and has a long term plan for moving to Dynamics 365 for CRM and ERP capabilities.

Defining strategy

Aside from this, Bignall’s priority is to define a digital strategy that takes in broader ambitions. She says this is likely to include an emphasis on what Cardiff should be doing in the smart cities field.

This reflects the fact that it is growing more quickly than any British city apart from London, and more quickly than the rest of Wales combined. She sees it as a good thing, but points to the familiar problems it creates with pollution, congestion and waste.

“We have high targets on air pollution – smart cities is high on the agenda for Cardiff – and for our event management – we punch above our weight on the events held here. A smart cities agenda for traffic, pollution, people and connectivity is key for a city of this size.

“I’ll be advertising a post shortly, and it needs an investment, but they are cross-cutting technologies.”

The strategy will also include a focus on using digital technology to support independent living for the elderly. As with most local authorities, the council is looking at the forecasts for a sharp increase in the number of people aged over 85, sees this will create a big pressure on resources and is looking to digital to provide solutions.

Ambition for bots

Bignall is also enthusiastic about the prospects for bots in local government.

“We’ll be doing a bot that's for low value contacts, to keep them out of the contact centre, then some internal facing bots to help the roll out of Office 365 to keep the questions away from the delivery team,” she says.

“We want to be quite ambitious with our bot programme and we have the administration’s buy-in, which is really key.”

This is going to need some changes in how the council works with technology suppliers. She says that things could have been better in recent years as it struggled to deal with financial pressures and that it now has to redevelop some relationships.

“We need to work with our partners more effectively, create loyal partnerships where we can draw benefits. Over the years austerity has hit, budgets have been decimated, and a lot of the relationships had been left unnurtured. It’s time to re-nurture those relationships with technology companies and get on the cutting edge again.”

There also has to be a change in how it manages its spending in the field.

“My challenge is that there is a need to invest in the right technologies to draw the savings out. We have to move away from traditional capital funding towards a revenue model, which is a huge challenge for us.”

Previous achievements

Despite this, she made clear in her address to the conference that Cardiff has achieved some real benefits from its digital efforts. Some of its digital platforms are now used widely by the public: 70% of parking permits are applied for online, 70% of recycling bags requested online, and 90% of school applications made online.

It has also contributed to savings of £250 million over 10 years and a 23% reduction in the number of staff. But it has to save more, with a target of £81 million over the next three years, and move beyond that “bolt on” approach to digital to achieving digital by default.

“The administration of Cardiff Council is ambitious to change,” Bignall said. “They have committed to provide digital access to council services that is indistinguishable to citizens to every other aspect of their lives.

“That’s what people expect and there’s no reason for public services not to be up there with the best in this area.”

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