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As the UK government aims to support local authorities in evolving the digital efforts made as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, a small town in Hertfordshire is accelerating towards a new working model based on tech-enabled progress made before and during the Covid-19 crisis.
With 96,200 residents and about 500 staff operating across 30 service areas, Broxbourne Council has adopted a digital approach to support its corporate strategy for 2020-2024, which is focused on creating business growth and jobs, enabling sustainable living in an attractive environment, as well as improving the council’s effectiveness and responsiveness in how it serves residents.
As a result of a modernisation process that started in 2018, the town managed a rapid shift to remote working in response to the coronavirus outbreak, thanks to advances it had made around digital in the months prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. During lockdown, the local authority kept all public services running and launched several new citizen offerings, while further advancing its overall digital plan.
According to the council’s finance director and the main project sponsor, Sandra Beck, Broxbourne is now shifting into a new phase of transformation. Work going forward will focus on areas beyond the emergency work of the past few months, based on practices that supported the provision of citizen services before and during the pandemic.
“Delivering services post-Covid-19 has been smooth and secure. It has been such a success that the leadership at Broxbourne are looking at creating a new working model for the council, building on the successes of the digital transformation and post-Covid work,” Beck tells Computer Weekly.
“A new phase of the transformation has begun, with a new design for its operating model ensuring that the council is resilient and agile for the future and can continue to deliver its vital public services within the new normal,” she says.
Collaboration between local authorities is at the core of the mindset of initiatives such as Local Digital Declaration and the London Office of Technology and Innovation, which has been working with councils outside the capital on initiatives relating to digitisation.
“Citizens’ interactions with the council should be tailor-made to the customer’s needs, not the council’s ways of working”
Sandra Beck, Broxbourne Council
Broxbourne is open to sharing the successful aspects of its current transformation exercise. According to Beck, the key lesson learned so far is that “citizens’ interactions with the council should be tailor-made to the customer’s needs, not the council’s ways of working”.
“Technology should be used to support your processes, processes should not be adapted to fit the technology and lastly that processes should be regularly reviewed to make sure that the organisation is continually improving,” she notes.
The issues Broxbourne Council faced before it started its digital transformation process were consistent with the picture seen in many other local authorities across the UK: service delivery was inefficient and failed to meet the expectations of citizens and employees.
In 2018, the council kickstarted the modernisation exercise with the aim of redesigning customer-facing and internal services. It enlisted outsourcing firm Sopra Steria to support the journey.
According to Becky Davis, senior consultant at the technology services firm, Broxbourne was typical of the vast majority of public authorities the company works with. “The way it delivered many services had not changed as fast as the lives of the people of the community,” she notes.
Achieving the digital vision proposed by the supplier also involved a council-wide business transformation programme that couldn’t affect the day-to-day delivery of services. “The council’s vision was to transform into a digital organisation, redesigning citizen-facing and internal services to meet modern expectations, as well as improving staff efficiency and value,” says Davis.
However, there were many initial challenges to tackle, including a historic lack of IT investment. According to Broxbourne’s Beck, issues ranged from service areas operating in silos with manual processes and heavily customised, bespoke systems, to the quality of the interaction with residents.
“A customer’s experience of interacting with the council often spanned a number of different service areas, feeling disjointed, inefficient and confusing. The ability to transact or find information online was virtually non-existent,” says Beck.
According to Steria’s Davis, the project’s areas of focus included outlining what “good” would look like for the council by 2021, the design of the tech infrastructure required and also made the most of what was already available, in addition to the delivery and design of public services, as well as the management of the actual transformation programme and the process of adopting new ways of working.
Commenting on the set-up prior to the transformation project, Broxbourne’s Beck says the old way of doing things meant there was an overall sense of frustration for both customers and council employees. At the same time, the task of changing felt overwhelming.
According to Beck, in less than a year after the transformation approach focused on customer-centricity was introduced, the council was “transformed”, with 126 new end-to-end digital services delivered so far, of which 33 were delivered during the pandemic.
“A member of the public walking through the doors at Broxbourne Council is now welcomed into a new customer reception and met by self-service technology,” she says.
“[The council] has a new state-of-the-art digital platform to support its website, digital services and customer management system,” the finance director notes, adding the changes have delivered “significant benefits” both for citizens and the council.
So far, digital services in Broxbourne have been used over 31,000 times, with 51% of customers using smartphones to do so. With more customers self-serving online, council staff are answering 21% more calls and there is a 50% reduction in the number of calls that are unanswered.
Automation has been another highlight of the digital transformation journey at Broxbourne so far, as it enables staff to answer more queries right first time, prompting a reduction of 29% of calls being transferred into service areas during the working day.
Key deliverables of Broxbourne’s digital transformation
- Four new platforms, cloud-based technology and integrations making the most of legacy systems.
- Redesign and implementation of 142 business processes.
- Support and training of 268 staff to work digitally.
- A new website enabling 126 end-to-end digital services.
- A new digitally enabled reception, with 92 query types available.
Digital services are also enabling the council to re-invest capacity to deliver better outcomes for citizens. An example is a digital-first contact service for housing, which has released staff capacity to focus on homelessness casework.
Work prior to the pandemic also involved the introduction of new day-to-day ways of working introduced by the digital transformation and to manage the cultural change required, according to Beck.
“The transformation was chunked up into manageable projects, showing the value of the new ways of working iteratively, which helped the council to change at pace,” she points out.
The benefit of digital foundations
By the time Covid-19 struck, Broxbourne has already adopted the new digital ways of working, and nearly 270 staff had been trained and supported to operate throughout the transformation, according to the council’s finance director.
“When [employees] found themselves advised to work from home due to the coronavirus, they were in a prime position to continue to deliver all services,” says Beck.
Even though the modernisation was underway, the demands presented by the Covid-19 outbreak accelerated certain areas of the project, she says, giving as an example a Microsoft Teams roll-out in five days. “This meant councillors were able to deliver their cabinet and committee meetings online and ensured that all staff were connected to their teams,” says Beck.
The video conferencing tool was also a key enabler in ensuring the continuity of the digital transformation work with Sopra Steria, with meetings and workshops all taking place online.
According to the finance director, citizens in Broxbourne were already used to digital services that were delivered in the months prior to the pandemic, and the council saw a 69% increase in public take-up of the new offerings. Notably, over-65s have increased their use of the council’s website by 117%.
Individuals were mostly accustomed to digital services, and the council’s digital platform, Jadu, was key to ensuring that citizens are connected to the services that are delivering outcomes, but the council needed to create new ways to support businesses online. These additional services sought to cover immediate new requirements stemming from the crisis, such as the increase in requests for council tax support and the delivery mechanisms of paying grants to local businesses.
“This public and private sector collaboration has shown how a fully integrated process can work efficiently, rapidly and effectively – ultimately contributing to better public services”
Becky Davis, Sopra Steria
To fill the gaps, Broxbourne worked with Sopra Steria to form a team focusing on digital solutions for Covid-related requirements that included service designers, developers, business change leads and content writers, who delivered nine core solutions in just a few days, says Beck. This included a triage service to manage benefit requests and digital application forms for business grants, in addition to Covid information and services to support citizens in areas such as housing benefits.
According to Sopra Steria’s Davis, what stood out in Broxbourne in relation to other local authorities driving digital transformation programmes, and particularly during the pandemic, was the full commitment of the council to making the partnership work. The consultant notes that 15 council leads have worked alongside the tech firm in the design and delivery of all aspects of the programme.
“[Broxbourne’s Beck] has driven from the front and enabled rapid decision-making, again significantly contributing to the overall success of the programme,” says Davis. “This public and private sector collaboration has shown how a fully integrated process can work efficiently, rapidly and effectively – ultimately contributing to better public services.”