The challenges of implementing Camden’s digital strategy

Camden Borough Council's digital strategy sets out how technology will support and enable the local authority grow and develop

Camden Borough Council in London has unveiled a digital strategy which sets out how technology will support and enable the local authority to grow and develop in the coming years.

The strategy touches on many technologies and digital innovations that could affect how the council delivers public services to citizens, from big data analytics and open data to coding education clubs and the internet of things.

“It’s almost out of date the day you publish it,” said Camden Council CIO John Jackson, highlighting the need to constantly iterate the business use of technology as one challenge of creating a digital strategy.

“We will continue to align the big changes over the next few years to meet our financial challenges,” he said.

The council has a £1bn annual turnover, £350m in operating costs, and 5,000 employees to provide services for its 250,000 residents and 24,000 businesses. Between 2012 and 2018, it must deliver savings in excess of £120m. “That cannot be done without radical change and innovation,” said Jackson.

It is a situation that many local government IT leaders will recognise.

Camden plan outcomes for 2017

  • Fewer children living in poverty
  • Fewer families with complex needs
  • Increased life expectancy for people living in Camden’s most deprived areas
  • Better homes across all tenures
  • Improving the standard of private rented accommodation

Digital growth

In the Camden strategy, the council said the digital revolution matters because “digital change creates opportunities for both innovation and growth”. It describes a vision of how digital can improve public services, driving improvements to efficiency and productivity by becoming a more joined-up organisation.

Greater use of open source is a part of the plan, as well as building partnerships with other public sector bodies locally and across the UK.

By becoming more joined up the borough hopes to integrate its siloed back-end systems to create a seamless experience for the citizen, in turn reducing costs for the council.

Jackson wants to drive through the standardisation of web services and application programming interfaces (APIs) to connect the council’s systems. He used the electoral register as an example of a siloed system. saying that to validate a parking permit with an address, it would make sense to go to the electoral register to complete the validation, but because the systems are not joined up, the customer has to provide more ID or log into another system, which is inconvenient.

“Unless these systems team up and share efficiently, it all gets a bit difficult in terms of process,” he said. People who have to log in and out of different systems just add more cost.

The council also intends to redesign its software so it is easier to use, calling older systems “clunky” and not intuitive to use.

Improving staff skills

The Camden strategy identified the need to train employees to deliver digital innovation.

“Camden needs to ensure staff are confident about digital technology and learn how it can deliver more efficient public services. The strategy intends to nurture its workforce by training staff in digital skills and sharing innovation and developments across services to accelerate changes and the emergence of new ideas,” said the strategy document.

Given the growing digital skills gap facing many UK organisations, developing skills in existing staff makes sense both practically and economically.

Specialist teams have been created to harness digital innovation, including “cross-cutting technology” teams specialising in business intelligence, agile working, channel shift and joined-up working, as well as a customer insight team focused on using feedback and data from residents and businesses to drive council service improvements.

Camden also plans to introduce new ways of collaborating using crowdsourcing and hackathons to help train staff and deliver services.

Developing digital skills is proving to be a huge challenge for many areas of the public sector looking to become more “digital by default”.

Georgina O’Toole, director at analyst TechMarketView, said Camden has had some success with crowdsourcing and hackathons in the past, but such events will not be enough on their own to develop the skills staff need at Camden. 

She pointed to private sector partnerships such as Norfolk County Council and HP which have structured processes for training employees.

But O’Toole warned about the overuse of buzzwords in public sector technology strategies, such as digital, crowdsourcing, hackathon, or agile. “I just hope the council understands what it means by all these things,” she said. “The word ‘digital’ is fast becoming the new ‘cloud’. Pretty soon we’ll start talking about ‘digital washing’ just as we spoke about ‘cloud washing’.”

While Jackson could not say how many of Camden’s 5,000 employees would need to be trained in digital skills, he said the organisation is already implementing new technologies into their day-to-day lives. The council has just implemented unified communications, replacing old telephone handsets with laptops.

It has not been straightforward for everyone, he said, but the more people who come into the organisation, the more tech-savvy they are: “We need to be very clear about learning and development and how we raise digital in the organisation.”

A part of improving skills across the organisation is making sure leadership teams in Camden also understand the potential and innovation opportunities of technology. Jackson said having an immature understanding of the governance process and how long things take to get done could be a blocker to IT performing well across the business.

“We’ve moved to a situation where technology is fundamental to what we’re doing,” he said.

Norfolk County Council’s joined-up strategy

Norfolk County Council is creating an information hub to help the council create a local knowledge economy. 

Led by CIO Tom Baker, the project will enable council staff to work more efficiently. It aims to aggregate data from across public services and provide the council with a single view of citizens’ data. 

Bringing together the disparate data from across the council and its multiple partner agencies will enable Norfolk County Council to make evidence-based decisions and reduce costs from duplication errors.

“We need information and data at the heart of what we do,” said Baker.

Technology and the internet of things

Jackson sees the internet of things causing a fundamental change in the way technology is used in council services, from a change in social care to refuse collection and sensors in parking bays.

“But it will be hard to demonstrate the opportunities for the technology,” he said. “All of those things are part of the answer.”

He said such opportunities need to be part of the core learning and development for management teams across the council.

“It’s important to get it in there and get it on the radar,” he said. “But it’s a long-term journey.”

The council has already redesigned its IT in a cost-effective way, beginning in April 2013. “We started using agile in a very big way,” said Jackson. “We were using it for a while in development for customer services, but we really pushed it into a council-wide programme in June last year.”

The council also rolled out Wi-Fi and implemented a bring your own device (BYOD) scheme to allow employees to use iOS and Android mobile devices. The Digital Camden plan also covers provision of free Wi-Fi services in the near future.

The strategy sets out the council’s vision for becoming digital and is a step ahead of many other local government bodies in doing so, but in acknowledging the importance of developing both staff and management skills, Camden has identified the challenges that much of the public sector faces in delivering effective digital services.

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