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Lichfield Council CEO opts for systems thinking

Simon Fletcher
Image source: Lichfield District Council

Interview: Simon Fletcher explains how the West Midlands local authority is rethinking services with social progress and horizontal structures to the fore

"We are actively looking for and designing out failure demand with systems thinking," says the CEO of Lichfield District Council, Simon Fletcher.

Following an early career in the public sector, he spent nearly five years in professional services, during which he discovered the power of systems thinking.

He says that systems thinking – understanding how different elements interact within a system and deliver outputs – will enable the West Midlands local authority to deliver the type of customer experience today's digital natives expect, which in turn will provide the "headspace" to deliver the personalised services those most in need require.

It is intended that this will simplify and reduce the number of interventions council staff make in processes, which Fletcher says is often the cause for delays.

"If a change of circumstances affecting someone's benefit entitlement takes place, that should be implemented the same day the resident informs us," he says of how local authorities need to reflect on processes commonly seen in financial services.

"Interventions from us today lead to failure demand with residents finding they need to contact the local authority, often as they cannot understand council literature. We have over 100 online forms, and we get a lot of demand from residents because they cannot find the right form. There are nine different complaint forms, for example, when there should only be one.

He adds: “For me, we've over-complicated digital services, the whole three clicks thinking that has dominated online design doesn't work; it has exacerbated failure demand."

Passionate about place

Fletcher then explains the priority: "If we are passionate about place making, then we have to make sure that what goes on in our buildings and organisation is giving us the capacity and resilience to make a difference outside, in our community."

This means creating an organisational model that provides that opportunity. Fletcher is restructuring the council to be resident-centric by removing vertical silos and creating a horizontal organisation that is both "commercial in its obsession over efficiency and service delivery".

Under the Being a Better Council strategy, which the Lichfield cabinet has backed, it will have a core, a middle and a front office, a major simplification of a district council's structures to deliver policy objectives.

Lichfield will also use data and performance metrics to ensure it meets the needs of the citizen.

"We are going as far as we can in terms of changing the model and breaking with traditional structures," he says.

Understanding lived experience

As part of this, Lichfield is working with the Social Progress Imperative organisation – a non-profit focused on social and environmental health data – to develop a deeper understanding of the lived experience of Lichfield residents. The organisation will analyse housing, environment, education, skills, crime rates and other topics, which should enable the council to identify issues that need addressing in each of its 23 wards.

"We should know in advance when people are at risk of becoming homeless and intervene earlier," Fletcher says of the ability to be proactive rather than reactive.

He believes this approach will expedite better collaboration between the community and voluntary groups and create a more joined up Lichfield.

"There are organisations and parishes that can provide some of the solutions we are looking for," he says.

Warm and cosy as all of this sounds, there is real business sense to it.

"If you can develop services that intervene to help earlier or become preventative in their approach, you can create better outcomes for people and save money for the local authority.” He cites Barking and Dagenham as a pioneer of this approach.

Amazon order

Whilst the social index will provide Lichfield with the insight for interventions, Fletcher says it is also important for local authorities to deliver digital services that are almost invisible to those residents who don't want or need to have a relationship with local government.

"Expectations have changed rather than the volume. So, if we as a local authority cannot achieve the Amazon or Uber experience, then we have a challenge, as we have a population who expect that sort of commercial efficiency when interacting with us."

For Fletcher, this means increasing the use of automation technology within the Jadu platform that Lichfield uses. He says many residents want a service akin to buying home insurance and the ease that consumers can get a quote. "Automation means we can triage those residents that don't need a relationship."

There is also a focus on cutting costs. "Over the next four to five years, we have to take cost and inefficiency out of how we provide our services as well as funding our place shaping ambitions to do the things only we can. So, we have to know and be able to afford our cost base, and digital will help us with that."

Austerity and beyond

He adds that the authority is “visibly fatigued” by the strains of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially after a decade of austerity, but that a new Lichfield West Midlands Traded Services organisation will provide it with commercial opportunities and new income streams.

"Fees and charges are sustainable and easy to predict; it is the government grant that is uncertain," he says of how local authorities need to become more commercially astute as a new era of austerity beckons. Post-pandemic, many local authorities have or plan to increase their council tax rates, but with the cost of living crisis and the UK's high inflation – 9.4% in June and economists telling the Financial Times it will reach 13% by December – Fletcher is wise to be worried.

"My concern is that with the cost of living crisis, people will not be able to afford their council tax," he says. Add in the impact of climate change, and local government, like so many other vertical markets, is entering another phase of disruption, which this CEO believes can only be dealt with through a redesign of the council operations. 

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