Interview: Nicola Graham, head of ICT at Aberdeenshire council, talks about fixing the foundations for transformation and the advantages enjoyed by Scottish local authorities
Local government is not easy in Scotland, but Nicola Graham says that its transformation leaders have a couple of advantages that their counterparts of England do not enjoy.
The head of ICT at Aberdeenshire Council, and chair of the Scottish branch of public sector IT association Socitm, conveys a positive outlook in conversation with UKAuthority at the Local Digital Transformation event in Glasgow.
It is partly down to the financial situation, and to a sense of shared purpose, in local and central government, that seems stronger north of the border.
“I believe cuts for Scottish councils have not been as deep as in England,” she says. “The Scottish Government has launched a new digital strategy, with an ambitious plan for digital to be at the heart of government, and it works with us quite closely.
“In Scotland local and central government are much closer, and the Digital Directorate in the Scottish Government is probably much closer to the rest of the public sector than Government Digital Service (GDS) in England. That’s probably due to the size of Scotland; it’s smaller, we all know each other, and it’s a community where it’s much easier to reach out to each other.
“We’re all going in the same direction, but at different stages with different things. There is a lot of commonality around the work we’re doing with cloud, service design and that, and I’m hoping the Digital Directorate will help to pull that together, create the cohesion and help us identify the opportunities for collaboration.”
There are already a couple of organisations supporting the effort. Graham says that the meetings for Socitm Scotland are well attended with a good dialogue between its members.
“I know most of my counterparts on other councils,” she says. “We all know each other and are happy to share things. We’re not in competition with each other.”
There is also the Improvement Service, which provides advice and develops products for local services. These include a handful of digital mechanisms, including the tellmescotland portal for publishing public information notices and the myaccount sign-on for authorities’ websites.
Aberdeenshire began to use the former earlier in the year, and has taken myaccount as the citizen authentication channel for its online services.
“The difficult nut to crack with online services is the authentication model. How do you uniquely identify your customers? That has always been the challenge and MyAccount allows you to do that,” Graham says.
“We’ve got more than 20,000 people registered in less than a year. That’s not bad going, and we’ve not done a huge amount of promotion, just built it into services. We began with school meals payments and now have about half a dozen services using it, and the team are adding more all the time.”
It raises the question of whether there will be a role in Scottish councils for GOV.UK Verify, the authentication platform in which GDS has invested an immense effort over the past five years.
Graham reserves judgement, hinting that there might be space for Verify and myaccount: “Councils have an eye on GOV.UK Verify, which is a different way of doing it. They are using other authentication methods but I’m not sure they are in competition. You could use either/or.”
Her six years at Aberdeenshire have given her a strong grasp of the problems in providing an ICT infrastructure for a large rural area. She says that in her early days it was a struggle to deliver digital services to more remote communities, but that things have improved since the council invested in an unusual solution in the form of a point-to-point wireless network.
This has provided a bandwith that gets into the gigabits per second, with a minimum of 20 megabits for the more remote spots. She says this has underpinned the efforts to extend digital services, and that working on the project with a local company, Scot-Tel-Gould, provided a boost for the county’s economy.
The network is doing the job for now, but she is hopeful that the roll out of 4G – and 5G in the future – will provide more capacity. These technologies are going to be crucial given that “we completely recognise that fibre in the ground for all our properties is never going to happen”.
Her role has involved a series of other steps, among them moving from an old Lotus platform to Microsoft. The council has shifted the applications on Lotus (now IBM) Domino to SharePoint, and is on the verge of moving from Notes to Office 365.
It has introduced a ‘bring your own device’ policy, so successful she says that staff have been giving back mobile phones issued by the council; the data centre has been moved off-premise; the customer portal has been developed on MyAccount; and a unified communications strategy has been implemented with an emphasis on Skype telephony.
“Every phone number in the organisation had to change,” she says. “It was interesting persuading everyone it was a good thing to do, but the numbers stacked up so we went for it.”
This has provided significant savings from the cost of calls and switch maintenance, and is encouraging the broader use of the Skype package.
There has also been a series of agile projects to develop apps for different business areas. Graham says the council laid the ground for these by sending a handful of staff on short courses on agile working and bringing in a scrum master for a few days, and that she has been impressed with the collaborative approaches that have emerged.
“We’ve done a number of agile projects on developing apps that have been a huge success,” she says. “We have a couple of services that are quite progressive and done a lot for apps for inspections, such as health and safety for bin lorries, which have driven change.”
It has all been underpinned by efforts to raise the organisation’s IT skills capability. The team was restructured by bringing in people who had not worked in IT before but knew how to deliver change, then went on to implementing a strategy that emphasised the desired outcomes.
Another move was to launch a Digital Champions programme, under which employees, “from a director to a cleaner and a bin man”, were given extra training and provided the leads in getting others to be more ambitious in using the technology.
The council also set up a cross-service governance group for setting direction and priorities – “which has been challenging at times but we’ve got through it and it’s been a really useful process” – and has begun to work with Aberdeen City Council on a master data management programme. Graham says this reflects the fact that there are businesses acting as suppliers and customers for both, and that a lot of people work in the city and live in the shire, and vice versa.
“The big thing for us is about data, information and how we start to use it to make some intelligent decisions about service delivery and help with more online services,” she says. “We’re not looking to close down any more offices or contact centres, but to make sure customers have a choice, so if they want they can do it online or face to face and get the same level of service."
One of the lessons she emphasises is the importance of “making friends with the accountants”. Scottish councils might have more financial leeway than those in England, but they still find it tough to make the case for investment in digital.
In Aberdeenshire’s case it has involved shifting spending away from capital investment, which had been easier to obtain, into operations and revenues. Building a good relationship with the finance team made this possible through some reorganisation of cost and revenue streams.
“Communication is also important,” she says. “People get frightened by the change, hear about robots and automation taking their jobs, but it’s about different types of jobs and skills. One of the things my people had to do was listen. Communication is a two-way thing.
“And I had to learn not to try to boil the ocean. We couldn’t fix everything at once. You need to look at where you can get the maximum value and use that to drive the rest of the change.
“We’re working with the services that really get it, then we have others knocking our door saying they are interested.”
Then comes the importance of looking ahead and to other authorities for solutions.
“We’re constantly horizon scanning to see what’s coming next, what we can learn from others and steal with pride from others.
“We get quite heavily involved in some of the Local Government Digital Office work, learning from others, and we have an active network in Scotland in terms of people sharing ideas. We regularly ask people what they have done.”
Despite all this, Graham is cautious about talking of achieving a transformation. She describes the steps so far as “fixing the foundations”, ensuring that the technology works properly, rather than radically changing the way it delivers services and runs its internal business.
This can, however, lay the ground for a deeper transformation. This is something for the future, and Aberdeenshire has advantages, some shared with other Scottish councils, that give it a good starting point.