Interview: Paul Neville, director of digital and ICT at Waltham Forest Council, talks about its efforts to learn from e-commerce and develop a ‘process flow’ bot linked to Facebook
Supporting subscription sales at BskyB to leading Waltham Forest Council’s digital activities isn’t the most obvious career progression, but Paul Neville says it has involved a transfer of skills that are increasingly important to local government.
It wasn’t a direct move for the director of digital and ICT at the London borough – between those positions he worked with two major cancer charities on their transformations – but he says that councils can learn a lot from the broadcaster’s work on improving the customer experience on its website.
“How to attract someone to a website then encourage them to buy something or help themselves, and become delighted with the brand, are really relevant to the local government sector,” he says. “We want people to self-serve through our website, be delighted with the experience and get something out of it. Not only does that save us money, it should be a really good experience.
“The e-commerce world focuses you on the customer experience, and that is really valuable to local government.”
He is now 18 months into the role and has claimed a handful of notable achievements from applying the e-commerce approach to Waltham Forest’s online presence. One has been in its servicestore website attracting business for its Trading Services operation: in December it reported revenues of £304,000 since the launch of the site in April and the council forecast it would increase to £700,000 in the second year.
Another has been the launch of the Walthamstow Wetlands website to support the recent opening of the large nature park in the borough. This involved a strong emphasis on design, a structure to guide potential visitors through what they need to know, making it SEO-friendly and ensuring it looks good and works smoothly on a mobile device.
“We have a superb level of visitors, vastly exceeding expectations,” he says. “The stats are very good, and we can see how many people are viewing on a mobile.”
Thirdly, the borough has recently been able to celebrate winning the competition to be London Borough of Culture in 2019. It built its wfculture19 website as a central element of its bid and attracted over 14,500 pledges of support.
“It was a critical part of the bid to use digital marketing and bring it to life,” Neville says. “It was coupled with a lot of work in social media by the communications department.”
He led a switch to agile working in building these sites and acknowledges that this initially ran into some resistance. This led to some “interesting conversations” with people not used to the approach, but there was a tipping point when they began to accept the change, and the borough’s leadership was supportive from early on.
“It’s a place where there is a process, and you have the whole thing about members, politics and concern for risk,” he says. “But ultimately the organisation quickly agreed to try something new. It’s one of the nice things about this borough, that it’s willing to try something and work in a different way; and it’s been really successful.”
It is partly a reflection of the leaders seeing the need for change when they appointed him, bringing together two roles with separate responsibilities for digital change and the ICT estate.
“My role brought the two together, it was in the job title, and that was a statement of intent,” he says. “With the underlying technology, the digital skills and working in a different way we can take the old and the new and do something.”
One of his current priorities is to develop a digital strategy, which he says is a work in progress, but that it should involve building an architecture to make new technology work.
There is an indication in a new initiative for Waltham Forest, in the launch of its Neighbourhood Bot developed with PwC. It has been designed to work initially through through Facebook, with plans to add Twitter later in the year, and focuses on a handful of services including dealing with fly tipping, fly posting, rubbish in front gardens and dog fouling.
“These things are the ones that really rile people and which they feel impact on their lives,” Neville says. “This is about making it easy to report them and to see what’s going on in response.”
It is accessed through the council’s Facebook page and asks a series of relevant questions aimed at making it easy to report an issue. Once it has been reported an alert is quickly sent to the waste crews responsible for dealing with the issues, who are equipped with tablets and can respond as soon as possible.
The relevant location is plotted on a Google Map, so the person who reported the issue can look it up, see how many others have made a report, and track the progress of the council’s response. It does not quite work in real time but Neville says it does provide a very quick turnaround.
“A lot of councils have gone for specific apps, but we’ve gone for the bots as most people already have Facebook and Twitter,” he says. “The beauty of the bot is that it directly connects to our system, so reports are immediately sent to the crew. It brings a new level of automation and it provides a different level of experience for the residents.
“We’ve been careful about how we’ve chosen these services. We think they’re ones that concern people, that they work very well with the bot, and we’ve been lean in how we think about it, asking the fewest number of questions that people need to answer.
“From a customer perspective we wanted it to be the easiest form you could have to fill out. I think this could work really well and differentiate us.”
He adds that the key to the design has been in thinking about the process first, then how new technology can make it better – and that this could be applied to plenty of other services.
“It’s not really artificial intelligence; it’s process flow. There are opportunities in the future to do more. You can do a lot with standard process flow if you think about the process, and deliver something that is a great experience for a relatively small investment.”
The strategy can also build on a deal with communications infrastructure company Arqiva, struck late last year, giving it access to street furniture around the borough in return for free public Wi-Fi. It is already available in Walthamstow High Street and should be added to other high streets in the borough over the coming months.
It provides scope for the future provision of 5G and is a significant step in improving connectivity around Waltham Forest. But it will not be the definitive measure.
“I don’t think you can have a ‘one solution fits all’,” Neville says. “Definitely fibre is going to be massively important, especially when we start to move to 5G. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with trying to upgrade copper, going through BT and others and asking how we can upgrade normal processes.”
Other improvements can be less radical. He points to the council’s recent upgrade of its social care casework system to the latest version of the Mosaic system, with social workers now trialling tablets to access and update information.
It does not represent the same technological leap as the bot project, but Neville says it has had its own complexities, and that the change still amounts to a transformation in how it is managing its services.
He also reiterates the emphasis on process and concludes there is scope for a lot more change of this nature in local government.
“Digital transformation is not just putting a nice front end on an old thing; it’s about ‘How can we do this better?’ and technology is part of the story but not all of it.
“Local government is one of the most exciting sectors for transformation.”