Aylesbury Vale District Council pushed up its profile in recent years as one of local government’s digital pioneers, not just with the adoption of new technology but a widespread restructuring and change of mindset in the workforce.
Although the authority was merged into a unitary for Buckinghamshire in April 2020, it left a legacy as an exemplar in how to harness the Local Digital Declaration.
The council made headlines in 2017 when it became the first to develop a skill for the Amazon Alexa voice activated personal assistant – in this case for information on various services – and digital technology was central to its adoption of a more commercial business model. Former chief executive Andrew Grant explained at the time that new digital offerings can open up new business options for councils, and brighten their long term financial prospects.
This transformation was underpinned by a Connected Knowledge strategy in which AWS technology has played a significant role. As the council moved away from in-house systems to the cloud, also migrating to a virtual desktop environment, it used AWS servers under its virtual tenancy. It also drew on AWS expertise for testing the tone and accents of non-native English speakers in developing its voice activated processes.
Maryvonne Hassall, the council’s IT strategy manager, says that chief executive Grant’s appreciation of what could be done with digital services made a big difference. He provided a style of leadership that continually questioned how processes were working and whether they matched the expectations of digitally savvy customers.
He was ready to engage in discussions, both inside and outside the council, specifically focused on digital, and this helped to shift the thinking throughout its management teams and contributed to winning political support for the change.
The experience involved a handful of factors that helped to create the conditions for the organisational transformation.
One was in emphasising the financial pressures that are threatening the long term sustainability of many local authorities. This is creating a situation whereby, despite ‘salami slicing’ of services and the efforts to find efficiency gains, they will not be in a position to serve their communities in the long term unless they adopt a radically different approach to their business.
Making this case clearly can provide the trigger for transformation, extending from the use of digital tech to how a council utilises its people, property and assets, how it interacts with the public, and how it structures its financial model. Leaders can argue that the need for sustainability creates the imperative for wholesale organisational change.
Aylesbury also placed a strong emphasis on changing the mindset within its workforce with a six-month programme of behavioural assessments. This involved all 450 staff and aimed to assess their ability – through face-to-face interviews, role playing and some online activities – to align their thinking with factors such as customer centricity, commercial priorities and team building.
The programme had the support of the unions, with the council preparing the framework and giving people time to prepare and make practice runs for their assessments.
Those showing positive results for eight out of 10 behaviours were rated as having the right mindset, and it led to changes among the staff. Some people moved on and others adopted different roles within the council.
It provided a learning process for both sides. Employees were encouraged to think about their capabilities and assess what sort of role they thought would be the best fit for them and how they wanted their career to progress. It also encouraged them to think about how this related to what the council was aiming to do more widely, and helped to strengthen their belief in the aim. Understanding how their function relates to the bigger picture is an important element of getting the best from people.
The council learned a lot about capabilities, how people could work together, and how its operations could be restructured within the new business model. It created new job designs and confirmed the potential of millennial, digitally savvy staff members.
It also anticipated a significant increase in the role millennials would play in the workforce, with the demographic expected to account for the majority of council staff within a few years. The strong message was that millennials wanted – or expected - to work within organisations that use technology in the same way in which they themselves do as consumers. This mindset can be aligned with that of a business or public authority that sees digital at the centre of what it does, and has the ability to change as the demands on the organisation change.
Breaking down silos
Another was a restructuring that broke down traditional departmental silos and brought customer contact within one digital system, with a single view of the customer and all teams directed at supporting the customer service operation. It promoted a more joined up view towards providing services for individuals, especially those needing special support, and encouraged a more ambitious approach to development new services.
This has been reflected in the use of Amazon Alexa, for example, for a clutch of information and transactional services, including council tax, recycling and waste collections.
Hassall says the approach is to ensure that people are thinking about how their jobs relate to the customer and the ways in which they can deliver real benefits.
Grant summed this up as a willingness to try things that may fail - but to fail fast while minimising any risk and making sure the political backing is in place. It emphasises one of the major requirements of leadership in local government: ensuring the key elected members understand the ambition and are ready to support it – to the point of expecting and forgiving some short term setbacks on the way.
Aylesbury Vale’s digital journey reflects the key points of the fourth principle of the Local Digital Declaration: creating the conditions and challenging people inside the organisation to embrace the change.
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)