One of the leading London boroughs in terms of innovation, Waltham Forest is building on its technological achievements of the past few years. The council is now advancing digitisation and collaboration to support the resident and business needs arising from the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.
Since 2016, the technology agenda at the local authority has been led by director of digital and ICT Paul Neville, who previously led large digital and change programmes at startups and corporates including Sky and BT. These experiences provided the executive with a useful toolkit for his first public sector role.
“What you’ll normally find when you come in from any sector into local government is just how many things we actually do,” Neville tells Computer Weekly.
“Councils deliver hundreds of different services and, as a CIO, to be able to see and understand the impact that you can have is exciting and very challenging, since you have to do that in a context of less budget than you’ve ever had before,” he points out.
Based on his experiences in the private sector, one of Neville’s first impressions was that collaboration within the council wasn’t taking place in the way it should. In addition, the CIO realised that local government wasn’t “as commercially clever as it could be”, with councils not using their buying power to make a difference in the way services are delivered by suppliers.
Years later, Neville would have the opportunity to work with other local authorities facing similar challenges at the London Office for Technology and Innovation (LOTI), a local government coalition formed in July 2019 to speed up the adoption of new technologies and approaches within councils.
When it comes to the mindset of the IT organisation, the CIO also sought to introduce, right from the start, the idea that the team wasn’t there only to deliver technical change, but to transform the way the council delivered front-line services to the communities it serves.
“We are here to help vulnerable children and adults and help businesses and residents to make Waltham Forest the best place it can be to live, work and visit – and once you feel and think like that, you can do something fundamentally different,” he says. “We also have to deal with the big problems that we face and show that we can make a difference.”
A new digital strategy
Before raising Waltham Forest’s game when it comes to digital transformation, Neville and his team focused on getting the basics right. The council’s social care system was among the first priorities – within six months, the team delivered a major upgrade to the platform, which is one of the most crucial systems for the local authority.
Another point the CIO sought to address at the start of his tenure in the council was supplier management, which resulted in improved service provision and better deals. “[Suppliers] knew we were watching them in a way that hadn’t been done before – that got us into a position where we are spending less but getting better performance and reliability,” he says.
In 2018, the council worked with PwC to rethink its digital strategy, a project aimed at getting Waltham Forest ready for the future. The approval of the project happened in September that year and a complete reset of the core technology of the council ensued, with a shift to the cloud and improvements in areas such as networking and cyber security.
In October 2020, the local authority will be closing its main large datacentre. According to Neville, almost all applications have moved to the cloud and managed services link to that environment. Microsoft was chosen as the main supplier, due to the familiarity of the IT team with its products, and because the commercial deal was better. However, the council also has a presence in Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud.
“We need a multicloud approach. We are on a journey and will move cloud providers if we need to”
Paul Neville, Waltham Forest
“I feel quite strongly that we need a multicloud approach. We are on a journey and I will be pushing us into [being able] to move cloud providers if we need to,” the CIO points out, adding that a key advantage of such environments is the ability to consume microservices – the council is looking into voice automation with Google, for example.
Leading a substantial device replacement exercise is another big achievement of the IT team at the council. Since Waltham Forest was unable to provide its 2,800 staff with new devices in one go, the replacement alongside a roll-out of Office 365 was carried out under a phased approach and ended in November 2019 – good timing, considering the current need for remote working and the increase in online collaboration.
“[At the time the device replacement started], I said to the team I didn’t want this to be just an upgrade. It was all about helping people work in fundamentally different ways,” the CIO says.
Building on his telecoms expertise, Neville is also driving projects such as a borough-wide connectivity programme, which aims to accelerate the delivery of gigabit broadband to businesses and residents.
“This is the kind of programme where you need to sow the seed and it takes a while to implement, but we are very keen to get ahead of what the [central] government is doing and accelerate that capability. Everyone being at home due to Covid has really accentuated the need for good broadband,” he says.
So far, the programme has delivered free Wi-Fi to eight high streets across the borough, and the idea is to get extra funding to advance the plan. There is a fair amount of campaigning involved, as well as encouraging a collaborative approach in dealing with broadband providers to unblock hurdles companies may face when rolling out infrastructure. The end goal, according to the CIO, is to integrate fibre connectivity into a local overall plan for the borough in the next 10 to 20 years.
“This is not just a one-off thing. We are making sure it’s easy to engage with us and that we’re encouraging the laying down of fibre. For example, when we’re digging up a road, why not provide opportunities to lay down [fibre], or when there is a new development, we ensure that it comes with fibre,” says Neville.
“We’re also talking to specialist providers which provide gigabit broadband to social housing and making it really easy for them to deliver – we’re already in quite advanced talks with those providers. It’s about creating an environment where the business case for investment for them is a good one,” he adds.
According to Neville, the tech-enabled change that has been taking place in Waltham Forest in recent years meant council staff were better equipped to deal with the requirements spurred by the pandemic, with important decisions and work in general successfully taking place online. It has also meant that residents can get involved with the council in ways that weren’t previously thought possible.
“We’ve got feedback that – for the first time, we are getting the kind of engagement we’ve always dreamed of. People could be sitting at home and still come into the town hall and engage in democratic processes,” the CIO notes.
“A lot of councillors are very excited about the way they can engage with their constituents in completely new ways. The technology isn’t necessarily different from what we’ve had in the past, but now we’re using it in a really accelerated way,” he adds.
When it comes to citizen services, the Waltham Forest IT team also sought to digitise as many offerings as possible over the past few years – when Neville joined, about 20% of services were online, with the remainder delivered over the phone or email.
With the back-end transformation and the focus on service digitisation, about 84% of citizen offerings in Waltham Forest are now online, enhanced with chatbots. That portfolio was boosted with about 20 new services introduced as a result of the pandemic, including a system that matches vulnerable residents to volunteers, a food donation platform and a book delivery service for libraries.
“Councillors were given new responsibilities almost overnight – from providing information on Covid to residents and businesses, to enabling businesses to request a grant to keep them going – and we could only serve them because we had a digital front end to support those capabilities,” says Neville.
While the council’s IT team took note of the design principles of the Government Digital Service (GDS), it has also gone its own way. According to the CIO, the transformation over the years involved intense collaboration with various functions of the local authority as well as a strong focus on customer experience to ensure the digitisation was hitting home.
Paul Neville, Waltham Forest
“Working very closely with our resolution and customer contact centre has been absolutely critical to really advertise and push the digital channel,” says Neville, who adds that the effort has paid off, especially during Covid-19, when the ability to transact online has been critical to keeping the council working.
The transformation journey at Waltham Forest also benefited from Neville’s experiences from previous jobs around user-centred design. Drawing a parallel with the world of e-commerce, where the goal is to convert traffic into sales, the CIO sought to apply the same principles to the local authority.
“If you bring that whole [commercial] concept into local government, you can think about [citizen] services the same way: the goal is to convert the interest of someone to do a transaction online into a successful transaction where they get something from it,” he says.
Neville’s commercial and digital expertise led to the other initiatives to enhance service provision, such as the creation of an e-commerce business, where the council sells a range of services such as garden clearance, handymen and pest control. According to the CIO, the council is planning a big expansion of those services in the coming months, with advertising beyond the borough.
“I think we have a real opportunity to deliver great services that our residents can trust and rely on at a reasonable price. At the same time, we’re making money for the council, and that will be reinvested in frontline services,” the CIO says.
Despite the recent acceleration of citizen service delivery online that has been taking place during the pandemic and the focus on urgent work, Neville still has a big pipeline of services that need to go online. “I’ve still got a lot more I want to digitise. That’s the thing with digitisation – there is always something else that you can, and should, be doing.”
The difference between driving that strategy in the public sector and Neville’s previous industry job is the scarce resource in local government, meaning he’s had to “push through some really challenging moments” to get things done, and also adopt a beginners’ mindset: “I feel very strongly that we are still learning.”
Rather than talking about a “post-pandemic future”, Neville argues that the Covid-19 crisis is very much in the present and can be illustrated in the increasing needs seen in social care. “We are not past Covid – we are just out of strict lockdown. We still have a lot to do and a lot of people to help,” he says.
Going forward, the focus will be on finding ways to use technology to support the increasingly important role that local authorities will be playing in society. “It’s quite clear now that local councils and bodies have the best handle on their communities, residents and businesses, so there are more responsibilities – and yet funding is not keeping up with that,” Neville points out.
“The big thing for me now is to help the organisation deal with these massive challenges, as we’ve built this amazing foundation in the cloud, with upgraded systems and new capabilities,” he adds.
Some of the key areas of focus for Waltham Forest going forward regarding new technologies are, according to the CIO, assistive tech and finding more opportunities for automation and use of robotics in the council in areas such as tax, which deliver the double-whammy of efficiency and better service provision.
Many of the lessons learned in the digital evolution at Waltham Forest will be shared with LOTI members, through the creation of assessment frameworks. Pilots on Neville’s radar include a hydration initiative aimed at older people with smart water bottles. Another pilot, led with Greenwich, will aim to tackle loneliness with technologies such as Amazon Echo Show devices.
“That consistent open working is absolutely critical for us as a sector – and that’s why an organisation like LOTI can be really helpful as it enables us to move forward together,” the CIO says.
As for what the future holds for Neville as a leader, one of the main themes for the CIO in the months to come will be to ensure the council has the right skills to respond to changing demands in times of crisis.
“We have to learn constantly to keep up with the expectations of residents and businesses to make sure we meet those expectations and work with them to deliver amazing things. It is a challenge, but the excitement is there, more than ever before,” he enthuses.
Covid is showing the IT department at Waltham Forest what can be achieved in a very short period of time, and while the journey has been intense, Neville will need to keep the momentum of change going and build on it. On the other hand, the CIO notes that the lockdown and pandemic have been “extremely challenging” and that he is proud of how local authorities in the UK have responded to support their communities, despite the many hurdles faced in recent months.
“I am really proud of my team, who have worked round the clock, including weekends, to support front-line services and deliver new digital services for residents and businesses to ensure the most vulnerable in our society have the support they need,” he says. “It’s been humbling and inspirational.”
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