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Interview: How Hackney Council will help accelerate innovation across London boroughs

Hackney Council’s director of ICT, Rob Miller, talks to Computer Weekly about how one of the most digitally advanced local authorities plans to collaborate with counterparts across the capital to revamp public services delivery

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As part of a new cross-government push to drive innovation in local authorities, Hackney Council is set to lead collaborative efforts to modernise public services delivery while driving its own agenda of digital transformation.

Widely regarded as one of the most digitally advanced councils in the capital, Hackney is one of the 15 founding boroughs of the London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI), a local authority coalition launched by London Councils and Greater London Authority in June 2019.

Mayor of Hackney and digital champion for London councils Philip Glanville wants the borough to drive its own digital development, while also working closely with other authorities to help lead improvements across the sector, according to Rob Miller, director of ICT at Hackney Council.

“One of the reasons why LOTI is especially attractive is that it presents an opportunity for us to have a greater impact by working together and driving a collaborative approach, rather than trying to create a big, integrated shared IT and digital service for London,” Miller tells Computer Weekly.

“That collaborative approach will allow us to be more responsive to the different councils and move more quickly, whether it’s by sharing products we make or buy, or even at an earlier stage in sharing ideas around design, and generally supporting and challenging one another,” he says.

A structured approach to collaboration

The way in which Hackney will work with other local authorities has three layers. The first is where LOTI will act as the vehicle through which the boroughs execute a project – according to Miller, there is “quite a long list of things that should be really exciting to work on” and first priorities will be agreed this summer.

“[Initial projects] might include things around data analytics and assistive technology to help people stay independent for longer,” he notes.

The next layer is where work involving multiple local authorities might also see sub-groups of councils within LOTI work together on projects of common interest. One such example is a project involving Hackney and another LOTI borough, Southwark, around improving the user experience for planning applications. Once concluded, the findings of the initiative will be shared with the other councils.

“As digital practitioners, we can open up opportunities and help offer ways in which services can be improved for residents and delivered at a lower cost”

Rob Miller, Hackney Council

The third layer is where local authorities can exchange ideas and experience of projects they are leading for their own purposes, but which other councils might find the output useful.

“This could be a blog explaining how we’ve done a thing, a report about lessons learned, or even publishing software code as open source – [councils] are welcome to grab it all to help develop their own initiatives and they won’t be charged a penny for it,” says Miller.

Local authorities face various constraints and a lot of challenges when trying to advance digitally. Funding is a key constraint, which, according to Miller, makes the work under LOTI even more relevant.

“Councillors are trying to protect things that citizens value a lot, but are also faced with very unpalatable choices as funding pressures are very strong. As digital practitioners, we can open up opportunities and help offer ways in which services can be improved for residents and delivered at a lower cost,” says Miller.

However, the IT leader recognises that the task of achieving digitisation in local authorities is “not straightforward at all”, as many boroughs have long wrestled with historic lack of technology investment.

“I've been fortunate to have joined Hackney at a time where the team had already dealt with a lot of the legacy issues, but many councils are still catching up with that,” he says.

Tackling digital challenges

According to Miller, innovation in boroughs is often hampered by legacy technologies and a small marketplace of suppliers offering products which are meant to help councils develop digital services, but which are very often “clunky and hard to use”.

To address that issue, the development team at Hackney is developing application programming interfaces (APIs) to allow the borough to uncouple its legacy systems from the digital services it is developing for staff and residents and deliver improved services faster.

Examples of digital services that have benefited from that approach include the use of Notify to improve the way Hackney Council contacts residents by tailoring correspondence according to their needs, while automating rent collection for over 80% of cases in the first test group.

“Our housing officers are spending twice as much time with our tenants and out-and-about on our estates, because well-designed digital tools mean they can access real-time information wherever they are,” says Miller.

In addition, digital service Hackney Works helps get vulnerable people into training and employment. According to the IT director, the digital service has allowed the borough to reach twice as many people than when it was only delivered face-to-face.

According to Miller, the idea is to continue pushing the digital agenda in Hackney and build an even wider range of services, such as Living in Hackney, a mobile-friendly map of local council services that will be delivered this summer and is intended to be re-used to generate other web maps. “[Developing digital services] is a job that will never be finished, as needs and expectations continue to change,” he says.

Furthering transformation

While Hackney has been focused on evolving service delivery and ongoing requirements around digital, there are other areas within IT at the council that still require attention.

“We’ve been working hard to move beyond the traditional IT remit and embrace the potential that technology and data offers for redesigning citizen services. That requires a team with not just technology skills, but also data and analytics, service design, user research and agile delivery skills, and creating what we think is a much more modern technology-based function,” says Miller.

“We’ve been working hard to move beyond the traditional IT remit and embrace the potential that technology and data offers for redesigning citizen services”
Rob Miller, Hackney Council

Within the modernisation goal, Miller hopes that in a year’s time, Hackney will have completed a “radical transformation” in workplace technology, shifting from desktop-based systems dating from the 1990s and 2000s and enabling increased mobility for working processes with tools such as G Suite. The replacement of a computing estate of 4,000 desktops with faster web-based devices is also underway and is due to complete this summer.

“We are also very positive about bring your own device and have modernised our security techniques to enable that too,” he says, adding that this is particularly important given the council’s partnerships with stakeholders, including charities, which operate on very tight budgets.

Data science is another area Hackney is working on. By looking at the different datasets held by the council, the idea is to ascertain how, for example, case notes that it processes can help determine where people need more support in terms of adult social care.

Hackney’s data team has also worked in partnership with the Data Science Accelerator Programme run by the Government Digital Service (GDS) to develop a predictive model to create a unified view of the borough’s rental property market, so that it can work with landlords and tenants to ensure these properties are fit for purpose.

The majority of the analysis for the project is being done in Python and insights will be delivered via an interactive interface so that council staff can access it easily. The property dataset will be useful in enabling Hackney to improve its understanding of housing estates, by linking in new sources such as Energy Performance Certificate data, which contains more information about property condition and size.

Accessing and creating digital skills

To support the various digital initiatives, Hackney has also increased the number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in its supplier network, many of which are Hackney-based, given the borough’s dynamic tech sector.

“[Local SMEs] have been amazing in helping us drive our digital journey, bringing some fresh thinking and ideas that are really helping us accelerate,” says Miller.

Hackney has used the Government Digital Marketplace extensively over the past three years, he notes, adding that it has helped the council contract with a much wider range of suppliers than it might have done in the past.

Developing digital skills is also an area Miller has been giving a lot of attention, with initiatives driven in the borough set to be replicated across other London councils.

“We’re an in-house IT and digital service and know that we need to focus on how we build skills in the team because this is a very fast-paced, competitive marketplace for people,” says the IT director.

To help address IT skills shortages, Hackney launched a digital apprenticeship programme in September 2018, where 20 apprentices are being trained in IT disciplines ranging from infrastructure to data and development.

“[The digital apprenticeship initiative] has been a real success for us, and we have managers who are really gaining from their contribution,” says Miller. Under LOTI, one of the early priorities is to create 100 such apprenticeships across London.

“That’s really exciting, because we’re giving young people an opportunity to start careers in a very important, constantly growing tech marketplace. It’s also very exciting for us because it’s helping us to bring energy into the team, as well as really great new talent.”

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