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Don't fix for now, fix for the future - Stockport Council's pragmatic digital exemplar

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 2, 2016
Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council is part of the Northern Powerhouse and impacted by the devolution of powers from central government. A pragmatic approach to digital transformation is helping meet big challenges.

Emma Collingridge

Local government is really the front line of digital transformation, where public sector service delivery comes most directly into contact with the citizen.

Vast multi-billion pound central government programs are removed by-and-large by several degrees from the daily lives of the taxpayer, but when there’s an abandoned sofa on the street corner and no efficient way to have it removed easily, things get real.

So it’s essential that local authorities are able to ‘keep the lights on’ and deliver reliable services to their electorate. At the same time, the pressure is on to do the proverbial more with less. Unfortunately in all too many cases, this leads to councils reaching out blindly for the kind of multi-year outsourcing contracts that have been so common in local government circles.

As I noted last week, a local authority in Scotland recently signed a 13 year outsourcing deal. In a fast moving digital age when technology can change within a 13 month period, this strikes many as a madness that was supposed to have been put behind us.

That’s why the work at Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council is so interesting and provides a steller use case exemplar for local government, not only in the UK but beyond.

Situated in the so-called Northern Powerhouse, Stockport not only has to deal with the demands of austerity budgeting, but also with the complexities of being part of central government’s devolution of powers to the planned Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

This is the archetypal 'challenge v opportunity' scenario in which the Investing in Stockport program is playing a key role within a broader transformation initiative.

What’s clear to Digital by Design Program Director Emma Collingridge is that there can be no ‘lipstick on a pig’ token changes here. The situation in which Stockport finds itself is one that presents a genuine chance to introduce meaningful change:

What we know is that we are in an era of unprecedented change.

We are in a situation where not only do we have less money and more demand, but we also have the opportunities and challenges around Greater Manchester devolution, such as some of the changes around health and social care integration, some the changes around the way children services and some of the place-based services are being delivered.

What happens now has to be about not only today, but tomorrow, the day after and the day after that. Collingridge says:

It's about not just trying to cope with now and manage the crisis; it's about trying to find a way to cope with now, but in a way that really sets us up for the future. That's the program we're trying to deliver in Stockport.

We're trying to make sure that we're creating independent resilience, rather than meeting people at the point of crisis, which is a very demand-inflating and negative way of working.

In other words:

We've tried to create a digital program which is constantly championing those ideals. This isn't a digital program that is about tech; this is a digital program that is about people and design and policy.

The principles of the Investing in Stockport program are about keeping people independent and community-resilient, about creating a virtuous circle and cycle between growth and well-being, between places and between citizens.

Multiple digital

Upon closer examination, what became apparent is that in Stockport - as in local authorities the world over - there are digital aspects and opportunties scattered across various citizen-facing and back-office areas, but these have not been joined up in a cohesive whole. What was needed is an overall view. Collingridge says:

We have systems after systems dealing with different issues. As [council departments] are transforming, they're all requiring new things, but they're also all requiring very similar things. They are all unique and do have unique offerings, but we're trying to distill that down into the core common capabilities that they have and see how we can pool all those needs together and do something fundamentally different as a new operating platform for the council, so that it can deliver the needs of now, but also set us up for a really good savings program and improved outcomes in the future.

The solution to this was the establishing of the Digital by Design principle. A business case was put together based on scoping the problems that needed addressing and presented in order to ensure senior leadership buy-in, something Collingridge describes as essential:

Don't underestimate the size of that task. It feels like you're going at a hundred miles per hour all the time, then I look back and wonder how it took us so long just to get signed off and get started. But if these things are worth doing, then they're worth doing well. It's worth getting that agreement and that senior sponsorship and leadership in from the start.

With sign-off and investment secured, it was time to go-to-market to put flesh on the bones of the program. At this point, Stockport nearly went down the traditonal procurement route, what Collingridge describes as:

a traditional big implementation with products from big vendors, then implementing them to almost meet our needs.

But as this process got underway, unease set in. This traditional approach might “fix the now”, but would it adapt to meet the future needs of the authority? Collingridge recalls:

What we felt, as we spoke to more people, was that there was another option, a road that would allow us to do more fundamental organizational redesign and organisational change by the back door by using technology and some of the ways of working, particularly in Agile ways of working and Agile IT. We could get so much more bang for our buck than just implementing a massive new CRM.

Don't buy anything

With this realisation taking hold, a pragmatic decision was taken:

We decided not to buy anything and to do a bit more thinking.

That ‘back to the drawing board’ re-think resulted in some interesting conclusions, including an acknowledgement that the best solutions weren’t going to be the cheapest, but would be the best fit for future needs.

In an age of budget pressures, that's a tough conclusion to come to, but everything was now driven by the conviction that building systems just to fix ‘now’, would likely result in systems that weren’t fit for purpose six months down the track. Collingridge says:

What we realized was important was that we should build modular solutions around common standards. We should build capabilities to enable continuous change. We shouldn't commit to the long term and we should build in agility and organizational change that we needed.

The end result of all this is a lot of people now engaged in Agile delivery of systems - and also an enthusiastic reception from the business front line units, which are themselves charged with transforming the way they operate. The last thing they need is a long-term, big ticket, rigid IT deployment that limits their ability to achieve that change.

What’s important now is that technology improvements can proceed at a pace alongside business process improvements, says Collingridge, an objective supported by the ability to provide continuous delivery that’s aligned to business needs, not fiscal budget cycles:

Children's Social Care has said that Agile IT and the way that we're moving towards it fits like a glove with the way that they're doing change and the way we're helping them to do change. They don't really have a big waterfall plan, so waterfall IT delivery doesn't fit with them. Agile IT and Agile Development and the way they're changing fit perfectly.

The benefits of this new Agile approach are being realised as delivery ramps up. Operational transformation during an unstable, fast-changing period of time is being achieved - and the lights are all still on as well.

There are clear lessons here that can be taken away by other branches of local government. Collingridge says:

We want to use the best cutting-edge technology. We want to be like a lean tech start-up. We want to take all those things and use them as much as possible to leverage opportunity and benefit and make taxpayer pounds go as far as possible.

What I would say is to make the right choice. It's knowing how to make the right choice, and being confident, not discounting things, not being caught up into the sales pitch, knowing what you value, knowing what your red lines are, understanding the trade-offs, discerning facts from fiction in pitches.

My take

A genuinely inspiring example of how to introduce digital transformation into local government circles, avoiding the bad practices of old - i.e. huge outsourcing deals - and introducing Agile systems delivery to meet core objectives - i.e. servicing the citizen.

It’s an examplar based on pragmatism and being constantly aware that this is about better public service delivery, not digital for its own sake. It’s Digital by Design, not Default. There isn’t a dogma apparent here of ‘Digital now or nothing’, which arguably is a charge that might be laid at the door of some of the less successful digital transformation programs in central government in recent times.

Image credit - EventCentre/Investing in Stockport

Disclosure - Emma Collingridge was speaking at the Think Cloud for Local Government conference.

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