Interview: Lucie Glenday, chief digital officer, Surrey County Council

Chief digital officer Lucie Glenday was brought into Surrey County Council to change the way it thinks about digital services

Coming into a local government organisation to change the way it thinks about digital services is a challenge. And Lucie Glenday (pictured), chief digital officer, was brought into Surrey County Council to take on that challenge.

Previously head of transformation at the Government Digital Service (GDS), Glenday’s role at Surrey is to have an outsider’s view of the technology landscape in the council and to talk about the new digital innovations it should take on board.

“It’s a hard thing,” she says, calling herself a troublemaker. “That’s what the role is – somebody to come in and ask questions no one else has asked.”

But CIO Paul Brocklehurst has taken it all in his stride. Already the council is advanced when it comes to digital thinking and has managed to deliver £250m worth of savings over the past four years.

“But we’ve got more to go, and when you’ve got that constant battering of someone saying ‘I think you can do that better’, that’s really tricky,” she says.

While Glenday says its sometimes difficult being the black sheep of the council, she notes that the team has been very gracious and accepting of her being part of the discussion. 

There are constructive conversations happening about the effect of digital on the business. “We couldn’t have done that a year ago,” says Glenday.

“Through me wittering on about it, there’s a much greater understanding of the importance of joined-up services,” she adds.

Joined-up services

And it’s this aspiration of joined-up services which is high on Glenday’s transformation agenda. It’s not just about the front-facing customer services, but joining up the back-end systems so the council has a single viewpoint of its platform. This, says Glenday, will lead to great efficiency and in turn better digital services.

When starting from scratch, Glenday says the council has to find all of the common functions it uses across the business and see where it can streamline.

“But you don’t create that scale of change by doing it overnight,” she says.

And, in some cases, integrating services and using open data is just not possible. “There’s a good indication the market is just not ready for an awful lot of it,” says Glenday.

But if the council prepares and adopts the same principles in everything it does, she adds, it can hit the ground running when the market can offer the right IT services.

One area in which the council has to streamline is its licences and registrations. From 899 statutory public powers, around 50 are based on licences and registrations. These include forms a business may have to fill in to get an entertainment license, or a form for a resident to apply to lower a curb.

“What are the common things we do and is there a replication of process?” asks Glenday. For instance, a business may have to fill out four different forms, where 80% of the forms ask the same questions.

“It’s ludicrous,” she says. “I’m not saying a form has to look the same, but there has to be some back-end understanding that you’re the same person you were a week ago and avoid creating a completely separate record.”

It can be difficult for local authorities because, in a world where a supermarket can provider personal promotions based on what you’ve bought with your loyalty card, citizens expect councils to know them better than they do.

“People think we’re far more joined up than we actually are,” says Glenday.

And when it comes to health and social care integration, the same problems can be seen. Glenday says the council has 20-25 definitive lists of vulnerable people in Surrey, but the huge numbers in these lists don’t talk to each other.

The majority of the work I need to do is about enabling that business culture change, rather than necessarily the technology that sits underneath it

“There’s an assumption that we’re doing it but we’re not, and that’s both frustrating from my and the operation team’s point of view because they want to get on and do it, but from an information governance (IG) view it’s still very much unchartered territory.”

While the technology exists to be able to connect these processes together, Glenday says from an IG perspective it’s a massive culture change.

“So the majority of the work I need to do is about enabling that business culture change, rather than necessarily the technology that sits underneath it,” she says. “But you don’t create that scale of change by doing it overnight.”

According to Glenday, it comes down to people and, while data security is of the utmost importance, local authorities have continued putting additional processes on top of processes to be “extra careful”. 

“For many years we've had risk aversion drummed into us, because we’re so worried about losing data,” she says.

“The way we’re putting vulnerable adults' information together is extremely secure and CESG – a group within GCHQ that assists government departments with communications security – would be happy with it, so I’m not worried about that. However, the IG leads are still pushing and saying we’ve got to be careful.

“What’s interesting is people always find workarounds to get around the security, and those workarounds are less secure.”

Government Digital Service

During the interview, it’s clear Glenday still has her GDS-way of thinking when she says she is a fan of doing things gradually.

“If you don’t do that you’re going to end up with problems,” she says. “Bit by bit, look at the common functions and just check and check again that everything’s fine and is still working.”

Glenday calls working at GDS in the early days a privilege. She was one of the people who took Martha Lane Fox’s report about digital government and looked at how to work with departments to make changes. She then worked with digital director Mike Bracken and director of transformation Mike Bevan to essentially build GDS.

“Bevan gave me the biggest opportunity anyone possibly could have by allowing me to lead that business transformation team, because that's where we cut our teeth, going into big government departments and looking at a whole big system change,” she says. “It was just an exciting time.”

Shared platform

Another GDS-way of working is using open-source and sharing capabilities between councils to create a platform.

Surrey has joined up with another six councils in the south-east – a collaboration named South East 7, for which Surrey has taken the digital role. Products created by any council can be white-labelled and shared with others if common standards are adhered to.

It’s about creating that momentum for change, and getting that change in front of people who are strategic in that organisation

Glenday says Surrey is looking at hosting capabilities and whether it is possible to create a local government cloud infrastructure. And, while Surrey has two datacentres it can put forward to be used, other councils don’t have to meet that value of shared capabilities.

If another council can’t put anything into the pot, Glenday says that’s not a problem: “I’d far rather they bought hosting provision from us at a discounted rate than go to a big supplier, but there’s a balance. I don’t think you can do everything for free and I don’t think you can deal with everything in this philanthropic kind of way, but I do think you can share models.”

However, while Surrey County Council has an in-house development team, Glenday says its not going to turn into a development shop and will look to buy software-as-a-service when there’s a commonly used product available, and look to create bespoke services when necessary.

A temporary solution

But Glenday’s role at Surrey will not be indefinite. “I always said when I got put in this post that I see it as a temporary role,” she says. “You can’t be seen as the outside influence and the person who’s going to implement change if you’ve been in the post for x number of years, because I think you get ingrained in the organisation and kind of stuck.”

And will that mean Glenday will whip out her parrot umbrella and fly away like a digital Mary Poppins, off to save another council?

“It’s early days,” she says, explaining that Surrey has been on this journey for only a year. “But for me it’s about creating that momentum for change, and getting that change in front of people who are strategic in that organisation. And once that is done, it’s kind of done.”

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