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Case study: London Borough of Islington’s smart working journey

Caroline Baldwin

The London Borough of Islington is using technology to ensure its staff are as productive as possible.

In 2006, the council began to consolidate resources and refresh its IT infrastructure. It decided to reduce the number of buildings the council worked in, the number of staff it employed and implemented a hot desk method of working. It moved away from paper to a purely digital records.

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Eleanor Schooling, corporate director for children’s service at London Borough of Islington, says it was more difficult to change the culture in the office, than the particular technology staff were using.

Speaking at Socitm’s annual conference in London, Schooling says staff did come around to the changes with each getting a brand new laptop, and most who did work at desks managed to sit at the same desk most days, avoiding the disruptive nature of hot-desking.

But in 2008 the council had to freeze new purchases. “Like old people, laptops get slower,” says Schooling. “And with an aging infrastructure, there’s an increased business risk.”

Schooling says the council still needs to be much more responsive. She watched the behaviour of staff and still saw them coming back to the office to print off packs of papers, which slowed them down and cost money. “We’re not as responsive a work force as we believe we are,” she says.

As well as slowing down staff and costs, there are also security risks to printed documents. Schooling says the council used to always take paper out and about, but “it didn’t always stay in the places we wanted it to be”.

Digital data risk

She describes how, in 2009, when the council moved offices, they received a telephone call about a filing cabinet they had disposed of in Holloway Road. It contained some children’s files which hadn’t been seen, as they were stuffed down the back of the cabinet.

“It was an unpleasant few days as we sorted out what happened and why,” she says.

But just because the council tries not to use paper anymore, that doesn’t mean there is no risk. “Technology isn’t so visible to the end user,” she says, using the example that people don’t always see attachments at the bottom of emails.

One of the ways reducing paper has also improved customer satisfaction is with schools admissions. The London Borough of Islington no longer provides a sheet of paper for applications to secondary schools at the back of the school brochure. “We just tell them to apply online.”

Last year, 86% of applications for school places happened online, which proved more effective for both Islington council and parents.

But it is not just about changing the culture for Islington’s citizens internally. Schooling met some challenges around what people thought technology can and should do.

“People have the idea that technology can do anything,” says Schooling. She describes one of the council’s politicians had once asked for some information who, on being told it would four days to retrieve, said: “Can’t you just press a button and out it comes?”

Schooling says: “Even for people who know a lot, they think a magical piece of software will do anything. That has a price tag – it’s just not affordable in public services.”

Disregard for austerity

Meanwhile, financial constraints continuing to hold the council back. Islington council has predicted that, if the smart working project is completed successfully, it could save up to £50m in the next two years. But laptops and infrastructure need replacing, in the middle of a freeze on any new purchases. “Unless we spend, we will come to a complete halt,” she says.

“We want to enable people to work smarter and achieve more with less people, but we need to put capital into it to make it happen.”

She says the council is also changing the way it procures and looks for innovation in IT. It is now allowing companies to approach with solutions: “We’re no longer afraid of people who know more about this than us. We need to invite in what people bring in as a solution rather than saying the corporate solution is the only way,” she says.

“There’s no one size fits all, we’re already a different council than several years ago.”

But in an age of austerity, Schooling says purchasing decisions are even more important and need to be speeded up. “If we don’t get it right and purchase the wrong things, and the longer it goes on the faster the kit changes,” she says.

She says by the time the council gets around to buying technology, it has changed again and all too quickly becomes obsolete.

The London Borough of Islington will soon conduct all its business from one central location in Upper Street, saving the council £1m a year. Schooling would like to implement technology to direct citizens to the right person, as well as desks so people can apply online if they haven’t already done so. Looking to the future, she says she likes the idea of the council having people working the shop floor with tablet devices, offering help on the spot and using their handheld devices to fill in applications on people's behalf.  

“We want to change the residents’ experiences of interacting with us, and make them less dependent on us carrying out those transactions for them.”


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