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The case for an innovation committee in local government


Mark Say Managing Editor

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Geoff Connell places a lot of emphasis on the importance of getting elected members involved in a local authority’s digital initiatives.

He believes the approach taken by Norfolk County Council, where he is head of information management and technology, shows that a lot can be achieved with a formal structure that makes a key group of councillors aware of the challenges and potential benefits of a targeted investment.

The council, for which Connell is head of information management and technology, adopted the approach late last year with the formation of a digital innovation and efficiency committee, a move he says is already providing momentum to its efforts to move quickly in its transformation.

It came in response to the pressures that are shaping the nature of local government throughout the country. Norfolk has been among the largest recipients of revenue support grants, but with this due to disappear in a couple of years it will have to find £45 million – the source of which is currently unidentified – on top of the large scale savings it has already set out to achieve.

In addition it faces increasing demands on key services, notably adult social care.

Up for change

“But the good news is the organisation is a positive, ‘can do’ place,” Connell says. “The culture is good and the people we work with are up for change, and there is a willingness to invest to save. Capital is being made available to make improvements.”

The council’s corporate transformation strategy, Norfolk Futures, includes seven streams, one of which is Digital Norfolk. This includes improving broadband and mobile coverage in the county, giving staff the right technology and data, and making better use of its data for operational and strategic purposes.

The creation of the committee – which has nine members drawn from the council’s three political parties – has helped to provide momentum to the digital initiatives. Connell says members have professional digital backgrounds, some have knowledge through working on other committees and others have only a lay interest, and that this helps in making any initiatives relevant to the wider community.

“I find it to be a really effective vehicle to do things at more pace and get political and officer join-up around the digital agenda,” he says.

“The people who have been leading it at member level have been really positive and supportive about understanding what digital is, what’s cutting edge at the moment and supporting the challenges in the business around the use of mobile working, data analytics, assistive technologies and other issues.

“I’m not aware of many other councils having it. It’s often under policy and resources or finance, which means you don’t have the opportunity to deep dive and spend as much time on those digital enablers as you might do otherwise.”

Filling mobile gaps

It has played a role in one of the priority initiatives, to improve mobile coverage across the county, supporting a study to provide an understanding of the baseline and where the gaps lay. A study was commissioned that involved people driving and walking all over the county, constantly making calls and trying to use the internet. It took in about 6 million data points, was mapped online and put into the public domain.

Connell says: “We didn’t use it to beat up the telcos but to say to them ‘Here’s the reality of people’s experience’, and worked with them on what we were commissioning, how it would work so they would accept the findings, then said there were gaps in some areas.

“We had mapped public sector assets and had 200 buildings and structures most appropriate to house transmitters and receivers. We said we would like them to place their equipment on the structures where they had gaps so we could jointly improve coverage, then helped them get around planning permission difficulties, minimise costs and time to deploy.

“We’ve had positive feedback from the industry and telcos are in active negotiations with us to get improvements. In the meantime I’ve spoken with them about specific problem areas and they have made adjustments and improved coverage already.”

He adds that one of the key steps within this was arranging for representatives of the telcos to speak with the committee, so that both sides developed a stronger understanding of the issues facing the other.

Strengthening broadband

A similar initiative is taking place with broadband fibre providers, aimed at closing the 5% gap left by the Better Broadband for Norfolk partnership’s target of 95% superfast coverage by 2020. Again, the committee has been speaking with some of the alternative network suppliers and community groups providing their own fibre, and helping to provide the relevant wayleaves and giving access to transmitters.

The council is also obtaining £10 million from BT Openreach to help fill the gap, and bidding for Connecting for Rural Business Funds from the Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, and for full fibre funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In addition, it is setting up a long range wide area network around Norwich to encourage experimentation with internet of things technology. 

Beyond the connectivity issues come the service delivery initiatives. There has been a strong emphasis on increasing the use of assistive technology, with deployments to 7,000 homes across the county and efforts to use existing products and services such as Amazon Alexa.

“We’re now revamping the whole service offer to try to make the combination of people and technology as effective as it can be for older people, particularly to help them remain living independently, but also to target self-funders,” Connell says.

“The increasing availability and ease of use of technologies such as Amazon Echo and Alexa and smartphones with fall detectors is fantastic to help people live independent and active lives. Given the spending on adult social care it’s a big priority for the council.”

Bed app

The council has also developed a Bed Tracker app, enabling care homes to provide real time data on any available beds and presenting the information to social workers on an online dashboard, which saves them having to make a series of phone calls to help place vulnerable people in an emergency.

This has been shared with the digital group of the local sustainable transformation plan, which is aiming to replicate it in a tracker of bed availability in local hospitals.

“I think it’s a nice example of an agile approach in developing a technology that you can share with partners then scale up to make it an effective capability across the region,” Connell says. “They’re giving us a real time link to data that we have published in useable ways.

“A lot of the time this what data driven improvement is about; harnessing data that exists and making it available in a more timely fashion, in ways that can be more easily consumed by the people that need it.”

RPA in social care

Looking forward, he also sees plenty of potential in robotic process automation (RPA), citing a possible example in reallocating resources for adult social care.

The council is looking for a redesign in which the technology takes on some of the administrative processes, but not with the aim of removing the relevant jobs. Instead the staff affected will be reassigned to some of the more high level admin currently done by social workers, who will be freed up to spend more time with clients and carry out early interventions.

“At the moment we can’t employ enough social workers, we just can’t get them, so it also helps with the recruitment side of things,” he says.

“We’re freeing up human capability to do what it does best, to work in conjunction with vulnerable adults. While people are still doing admin around, for example, working out what money is available, recording, logging transactions, those are the things we want to automate to free up people to do what they are best at.”

MVP virtue

Much of this is in its early stages, and some of what is being done could be amount to interim steps. But one of Connell’s main messages is that this should be seen as a virtue.

“It could be an interim technology but you have to get started. It can enable us to free up capacity and if that’s the case it would be worthwhile.

“One of my pet hates is that people sometimes want to design perfection and wait forever to deploy it, which means you don’t get any benefits in the meantime and often the world would have moved on.

“I’m much more a fan of minimum viable product, staged delivery of new capabilities, getting the customer involved early and building confidence through delivery. It’s something you can build quickly, free up capacity quickly then use that capacity.”

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