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In many ways, Stockport Council is similar to most local authorities: faced with huge budget cuts, legacy IT systems and simply not having enough money to go around.
However, unlike the majority of councils, who, when it comes to IT, choose to go down what is perceived as the “safer” outsourcing route, the local authority is doing it the Stockport way.
Having managed to save £100m in the last seven years, but with another £60m to save in the next four, Stockport had to get “serious about digital”, according to programme head, strategic head of policy and information services Steve Skelton.
The council began its Digital Stockport programme in 2015, first developing a business case asking for £7.4m from the council’s reserve.
“Having sorted the money,” the council spent six weeks speaking to around 60 suppliers before realising “we didn’t want to buy anything anyone was selling”.
Instead, the council decided to go for a different approach and decided to invest in digital capabilities in-house and doing much of the work themselves, with one exception: it hired consultancy firm ThoughtWorks which has supported the council with building its capabilities and learning how to work in an agile fashion.
Much of the work Stockport has undertaken, has been inspired by looking at the work already done by the Government Digital Service (GDS), says Skelton. “We’ve looked to GDS and taken inspiration from the way they have done things.”
Stockport’s overall goal is to create a digital platform, and it has taken an open source and open standards approach. Most systems and services the council builds itself will be shared with others on GitHub, says Skelton, adding that this is not just to give it away, but to create a community, especially in order to start developing new features.
It doesn’t mean the council will only go for open source systems, he says.
“We’re not dogmatically open source, but once we started to look at solutions in a much smaller way, and have the skills in house to do the work reasonably cheap, costs have come down”.
Since the council embarked upon its digital transformation programme, it’s achieved many firsts. This includes its “Signposts” system, which effectively gives social workers involved in child protection and safeguarding access to any background information and data about the children and families from various different sources such as police and schools. It means social workers can use it as a triaging system for any complex case work within children’s’ safeguarding, says Skelton.
The work, he adds, has been a “real eye opener”, and children’s social services have been on “a real change journey themselves”. The council is also in the process of replacing the case management system, as the one used in adult social care is currently end of life.
While the technology bit has been relatively “easy”, says Skelton, the difficult part has been getting the information governance (IG), and ensuring people understand it.
The council has also focused on joining up data for citizens. Stockport’s “My Account” portal allows residents to log in to a range of council services, using an email address and password. Once logged in, residents can view council tax information, benefits information, book any appointments needed with the council and report faulty streetlights and blocked grids. 20,000 residents have signed up to the portal so far.
“A lot of it is basically rebuilding the front end, but it makes a real difference,” says Skelton.
Bridging the digital skills gap
Deciding to do most things in house, says Skelton, has required a true culture change both when it comes to ways of working, but also developing digital skills.
“It’s been a real transformation programme in terms of culture,” Skelton said. This includes having staff complete self-assessments of their own skills and what they need, in order to create individual, tailor-made digital skills plans for each person.
“It’s not always been straight forward, but staff are very motivated by the agile approach now. We’ve won the argument,” he says, adding that developing skills in-house and allowing staff to contribute more, can also make it easier to recruit and retain people.
“We’re no different from anyone else,” says Skelton. “We just want to get digital right for everyone.”