Interview: Matt Prosser, chief executive of the new local authority, explains how it is consolidating digital systems without neglecting the scope for innovation
A consolidation of local authorities is nothing new, but the lessons of the past are of limited value as Dorset Council prepares to become a new entity.
Its chief executive, Matt Prosser, says it has looked at the experiences of Cornwall, Wiltshire and Cheshire East and Cheshire West from a decade ago, but Dorset’s coming together is taking place in a different environment.
“The local government landscape has changed quite dramatically since then, so while we can take some of the lessons we have to find our own path,” he says. “And the digital landscape has changed in those 10 years so it’s hard to take any firm lessons from there.”
Dorset Council is set to go into operation on 1 April, bringing together the county council with five districts and boroughs – East Dorset, North Dorset, West Dorset, Purbeck and Weymouth & Portland – with the transfer of almost 11,000 employees including those in education. It is part of a change in which the county’s three other authorities – for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole – are also combining into a separate new unitary.
Even for relatively small authorities, this is providing significant challenges on the digital front.
“It’s generally bringing together four sets of systems as three of the councils are already partnered up,” says Prosser. “We’ve had to make decisions based on cost, risk and scale on how we run the IT and digital support services.”
Need for prioritisation
The alignment of digital systems is not going to happen instantaneously. It was only certain from September of last year, when the threat of a digital review receded, that the merger would go ahead, and this has demanded some prioritisation in what moves quickly.
The council is ready to bring the others onto the county’s payroll and HR system, a choice influenced by the view that there would be less risk and effort involved in transferring the smaller authorities’ data than vice versa.
After 1 April it will begin to look at the next steps in rationalisation, although Prosser says the fact that all except one of the councils is already using Office 365 points towards that being an obvious move.
He also highlights the previous consolidation of the councils’ websites into one.
“We’re fortunate in Dorset that we have a composite website, DorsetForYou, which has covered all six of the councils involved in the merger. That will carry on.
“The single website and shared web team has been there for a decade and is a good place to start, especially from a customer front end base. We’re redesigned it in the past 18 months with a new technical platform. That’s the front end in a single piece, which is really important.”
There is an expected complication in the need to align the councils’ contracts with IT suppliers, which have different dates for expiry, although it varies between systems.
“Some of their systems are unique to the country council and don’t exist within the districts, such as the Mosaic system in children’s and adult services, so they will just be lifted and shifted to the new authority,” Prosser says. “And for the underlying architecture and systems such as Office 365 we will have slight variants and have to bring them into one.”
He says that in some cases it can be possible to do this “by opportunity”, pointing to one of the payroll system contracts running out as the new council comes into being, and that some of those with shorter periods to run could be extended to support the alignment. But it is a significant challenge and he is cautious about any precise timescale for the change, stating there is just an “aspiration” to do it within a two-year period.
Along with this comes the necessity of ensuring that staff are equipped to use new systems.
“There is always a challenge when you have a workforce used to using its own systems and you want to bring them together. There’s a decision making process on which systems you are going to use – one of the existing ones or going to the market for a new one – and it needs a period of bedding in.
“That’s the cultural piece, about how we take the workforce with us to ensure they understand why we decided to use a system and put in the development, training and support for them to be comfortable using it. But you will always get a little noise around the professional areas where people have been using a system for a number of years.”
It should not be too complicated for the systems supporting the integration of health and social care in the county.
Considerable progress has been made in the development of the Dorset Care Record, which combines information from local clinical commissioning group and hospitals with those of adult and children’s social care teams. It has been used by Bournemouth and Poole Councils, but there will be little change as Dorset Council picks up the responsibility for social care from the county council.
Prosser says work on the record should be complete by the end of this calendar year.
Another challenge is in staff rationalisation, especially as the reduction of headcount was part of the proposal to consolidate the former councils. Prosser says this has already taken place at the top level, with 23 posts reduced to seven, and that a consultation is taking place on how it will affect the IT teams.
But he suggests there should not be a huge reduction, and that the most significant change is likely to be separation of positions in digital and change from ICT infrastructure and architecture.
That emphasis on change leads to a question about innovation and finding new digital solutions for services. It would be understandable if any thoughts of this were put on the shelf while the council concentrates on ensuring the more everyday elements of its digital infrastructure work correctly.
But Prosser points out that it has included a commitment as one of its founding principles to being a data and technology driven organisation, and that it has structures in place to support the effort. These include the separation of digital change from ICT provision, a digital lab for staff from all of the former councils and a digital academy to help people learn about the capabilities through agile training techniques and service design. It has also been working with digital consultancy FutureGov to establish some of its priorities.
“There shouldn’t be a pause in at least looking at the innovation side, but the introduction of new innovations will have to be thought about,” he says. “We’ve got some nuts and bolts work to do first in terms of getting the organisation together and on a firm footing.
“We’ll be recruiting a corporate director in charge of digital and change; we’ve already brought in an external corporate development executive director who has it within his remit, appointed on the basis of having done transformation and digital projects elsewhere.
“The aspiration is there; it will be the timing of it that needs to be thought through.”