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Edinburgh City Council goes from outsourcing to co-designing with citizens

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez March 13, 2014
CIO Claudette Jones is helping the organisation transition out of a 16 year outsourcing deal

Edinburgh City Council has been engaged in an outsourcing deal with BT since 2001 and has described the relationship as “challenging” in recent years. However, 18 months ago it hired a new CIO – Claudette Jones – who has taken up the enormous challenge of helping the organisation's IT department rid its poor reputation with employees and citizens by co-designing digital technologies with end-users.

Despite a budget of £35 million a year, Jones said that directors at the council felt that they were in a position where they could not even ask a question about IT development, because the answer was always going to be no. She told delegates at an Ovum public sector conference this week in London that the council's IT team had been proclaiming that they knew best (until recently) and hadn't been honest with the organisation. She is now tasked with bringing innovation back to Edinburgh. She said: 

Claudette Jones CIO

“A year and a half ago we were hated, we didn't manage BT properly, we let them get away with murder, we were too slow, we said no to everything.

“Our staff were incredibly dissatisfied with our IT service. We had no innovation whatsoever – why would you bother coming up with an idea if it took two years for someone to tell you whether it was going to work and the answer was it was going to cost £20 million. We stopped having ideas altogether.”

Jones gave an example of how poorly online transactions were being executed within the Council, whereby if a citizen filled out an form on the Council's website, someone in the contact centre would print it off, scant it and then rekey the data into multiple systems. She said that citizens cottoned on to the inefficiency and just stopped using online 'transactional' services.

However, the Council is now taking IT to the coalface...

Citizen engagement and co-design 

For the past decade or so Edinburgh City Council's IT department has only ever engaged with BT, according to Jones, because it wasn't allowed to engage with anyone else. It didn't speak to local authorities, partners, other suppliers, and most certainly had never spoken to a citizen. This is what Jones sought to change – her belief is that if IT priorities, digital ambitions and online services are co-designed with the people using them, then they are far more likely to be successful. 

"The first thing that we had to do was start engaging with people. Find out what they wanted from IT. We carried out a targeted face-to-face engagement programme, a tailored one, for each of our different stakeholder groups.”

For Edinburgh's citizens, the IT team began looking at customer segmentation data from Experian, which is readily available. It gave Jones information on key demographics, such as where certain people lived in the city, whether they liked to use mobile phones, whether they had internet connections, how they felt about online services, etc. The team then mapped this information with data held internally to find out what types of services different citizens would likely consume.

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“So rather than putting all of our transactions online, if there were certain people that would rather do something face-to-face, why would we bother? For example, we've got a partial online benefits system that is hardly used by anybody. It was about finding the right channel for the right people."

Not only did IT carry out data analysis at arms length, Jones also ordered her team to get out onto the streets to put together focus groups in order to find out what people wanted.

“We now have an IT department that actually speaks to people. What we did was send staff to those areas and make people stand at bus-stops, community centres, libraries and pull people in for face-to-face workshops to see if what we had come up with analytically was correct.

“That was incredibly worthwhile because we got a lot of insights that we would never have come up with as an IT department.”

For example, the city has a growing number of people living it that don't use English as their first language. The IT department found that this demographic would rather not use face-to-face interaction for services, or call centres, but would like a live chat capability on the website because it is easier for them to understand the written word. Good news for cost savings too...

“From a contact centre point of view that makes processes more efficient anyway, because they can have multiple conversations at once.”

The Council has also been co-designing its new website with citizens, which is currently being tested by users and will be launching in a couple of weeks.

Not only did Jones' IT department engage with citizens, but for the first time in a long time she and her team spoke to big IT players, local authorities, partner organisations and local SMEs to find out how the council's vision for its IT capabilities were developing.

“We basically opened our doors."

A wish list

Following the engagement process, Jones and her team came up with an IT 'wish list' that it was going to take to the directors – which would be a list of projects that it felt could improve services for citizens, employees and the City of Edinburgh. However, instead of just dictating the list to those in charge, Jones carried out further engagement by getting stakeholders to prioritise which order they felt the projects should be carried out in.

Not only this, she also mapped all the projects to the Council's priorities to ensure that IT was delivering against one of those outcomes – and no doubt also gave Jones some leverage in negotiations with directors. Savvy.

“In the end we ended up with 150 projects, which we started last April."

Amongst the projects are plans to implement new governance and team structures, refresh all corporate and school desktops, upgrade key systems (like HR), introduce collaboration tools, implement business intelligence to redesign services based on data, and implement remote access for council staff. 

© Olivier Le Moal -

It has also undertaken the challenge of sorting out the Council's data, which Jones sees as massively important. It procured, implemented and went live with a master data management system in just eight months, which pulls together data from ten of the council's top system so that it has a single view of the customer. It intends to build on this further.

Jones provided an example of how this is helping:

“If your bin isn't picked up in Edinburgh and you as a citizen phone the contact centre, that request has to go through eight different systems and departments before it gets to the guy it needs to. So you can imagine that it's just luck if your bin gets picked up.

“If you phone the contact centre and report that, then phone up four hours later and ask for an update, the contact centre has no idea because they just pass it on and never find out what happens. 

“Because we are pulling all this together, everything is going to go through our new CRM and everybody will get that same view. So from April you will be able to report a missed bin and that will go straight through to the person doing the work, without a single person touching it. Everyone will also get an alert that the job is complete.”

Finally, Jones added that just 18 months on from taking up her position as CIO, she has gone from being part of a team that was disliked not only by council employees, but also citizens, to a team that is inspiring those using its technology.

She said: “I go to meetings now and people I have never met before tell me that they love IT, which I did not expect to get in a year and a half.”

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