Pre-Covid, Hackney's experience in meeting the first principle of the Local Digital Declaration – to go further redesigning services around the needs of people using them – has led to different ways of thinking and engagement between different groups developing services. This approach put the council in a good place to respond rapidly to community needs during the pandemic.
Matthew Cain, the council’s head of digital and data, says the declaration has led to a pluralistic approach.
“There have been a number of conversations with other local authorities on technology engagement that were not initiated by IT teams to IT teams,” he says. “It has been instances like housing people speaking to housing people about technology, which is a more powerful conversation.
“It means that you have the opportunity to embed changes in a more lasting fashion.”
An example of the approach taken by Hackney has been its development of a service to support tenants with rent arrears. This began as a project to move away from using a legacy housing application to collect income, but collaboration with other housing services led to an understanding that some of the patterns of behaviour were a function of the way the software worked - which was not always the most effective way to collect rents from tenants.
This fed into a series of changes, such as using GOV.UK Notify to communicate with people as soon as they fell into arrears, but ensuring that the message was not uniform: the choice of language varies according to factors such as the level of arrears and awareness of any extenuating circumstance.
This reflects that principle of designing the service to be relevant to user circumstances - which in turn will produce better outcomes for residents and the council.
Cain says that this approach has required Hackney’s housing staff to become confident in new ways of working with tenants and prioritising their work, and that there have been challenges in ensuring that the officers on the housing estates can see the same data as the central team.
It was also the first project the council developed entirely in the cloud using the AWS platform. Working with AWS advanced consulting partner Made Tech, a containerised infrastructure was developed to simplify the way housing case workers access data. A web based interface and visual tools were also developed to help staff resolve issues faster and save hundreds of hours by automating simple tasks.
Hackney uses AWS services throughout its digital architecture and can see the potential for building on this work to develop other services. For example, Cain points to one possibility being a new service for supporting customers facing court action over small payments by setting up a digital process to pay off a debt incrementally.
The council has also used the approach in designing new e-forms for its customer contact. It built a multi-disciplinary team including members from the ‘meet and greet’, contact centre and web teams, drawing on their combined experience of what worked for residents and any possible problems in the design. The point was to understand how users would interact with the system, where support might be needed and to improve their journey through the process.
Users rather than tech
“The key is to focus on users rather than the technology,” says Cain, and this is feeding into Hackney’s strategy for fundamental change. It reflects elements of the council’s HackIT manifesto, which is based on four principles: make a start; learn through doing; understand its users; and build a multi-disciplinary team.
It has used this to further develop the online services on its website, with a redesign of content, improvements in the sign-on process and an increase in support for those who need it. This is helping it to improve the experience for vulnerable and stressed residents, reducing the time they need to get details changed, and providing savings estimated at over £100,000 for the first year.
Hackney’s experience points to local authorities developing a new approach to addressing their local challenges, bringing more people in at the early stage of defining a problem.
“It’s about ensuring we are looking across the whole system, not just maximising the power of technology and data to do things differently,” Cain says. “Sometimes the solution is not more technology or more complex software or extra staff with smartphones; sometimes it will be about a different way of providing a service.”
“Some of the most interesting and powerful work in the sector is taking place where a local authority sees itself as a place based convenor, brings together residents with voluntary organisations, SMEs and the local skills base, and comes up with a clear problem definition. It can then run multiple experiments to deal with that problem.”
Cain relates this back to the idea of a more pluralistic approach to designing services, and the need for a new mindset in the organisation.
“For some of our deepest problems there is not one solution,” he says. “Over the next three to five years, if we are to run financially sustainable organisations, we need to be confident in talking to our residents about how our challenges have multiple root causes, do not have a single owner and will therefore have multiple responses.
“We need to be effective as organisations in tackling those.”
Hackney has taken steps to promote the approach more widely by setting up an online library of its user research, encouraging other councils to also contribute what they have learned on relevant issues.
Cain said that it has been created to help the council to improve its understanding of its residents and to ensure that this collective knowledge base continues to grow rather than being confined to individual projects.
The library has been available through the LocalGov Digital channel since mid-2019 and includes documents on different categories of research, including issues affecting council tenants and staff, customer accounts, user researchers in digital teams, planning applicants and community groups.
“By collecting user research in this way and making it publicly available it provides a transparent tool to make sure we are building incrementally and learning the right things from the right people,” Cain says.
He adds that if a council is serious about the declaration it has to align its customer proposition to service delivery and the work of technology teams. Part of it can be outsourced or insourced, but if there is a combination it needs careful planning, as hand-offs between outsourced and internal operations can be expensive.
Hackney’s preference for insourcing was a political decision that gave it more control, enabling that alignment of technology, service delivery and customer focus to design services around the user.
This approach and the agility it provides enabled Hackney to respond to and meet rapidly changing community needs during Covid:
This story is an excerpt from UKAuthority's latest report. With support from AWS, we have been exploring the impact of the Local Digital Declaration on the front line - Download ‘Fixing the Plumbing: Principles of the Local Digital Declaration in action (PDF)