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Wigan Council and residents win from digital deal

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth August 2, 2023
A decade on, a focus on residents' needs backed by digital efficiency is benefiting Wigan's local authority and citizens

An image of an animated person accessing Wigan Council services on a mobile phone
(Image sourced via Wigan Council website)

Can technology augment a more caring and responsive community? According to Wigan Council, the answer is yes. The metropolitan borough council in the UK's north-west is a decade into a close and shared working partnership with its residents. Called The Deal, technology is central to how it fosters its relationship with those residents, which in turn has led to savings of £170 million for the local authority. 

Formed in the 1970s, Wigan borders Greater Manchester but also the authorities of Liverpool and the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire. The Deal was created in 2011 as Wigan faced severe budget cuts under the newly elected Conservative Party-led government. Over £160 million had to be cut from the Wigan Council budget, which according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), made Wigan the third worst impacted region in the UK from austerity, with 20% of the population being the most deprived in the UK. The council had to think differently. Wigan Council describe The Deal as follows: 

An informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives or works here to work together to create a better borough. 

We have committed to a series of pledges and, in return, need residents and businesses to play their part too.

The Deal has led to a freeze in council tax rates, and a £10 million investment into community groups and in the depths of austerity, Wigan bucked the trend and kept its libraries and children centres open as other councils closed them. At the same time, the quality of care provision increased, and so did recycling. Despite the economic turmoil, the strategy of Wigan Council has led to increased employment, volunteering and support for apprenticeships. 

A decade on, The Deal and its digital components remain the core focus for Wigan Council. James Winterbottom, Director of Strategy & Innovation, remains passionate about The Deal and is honest about the constant challenge of the public sector: 

We have some really good examples of doing co-production and engagement, but I would be wrong if I said we did it consistently. In a large organization, the pull of bureaucracy is really strong, especially during busy times.

Winterbottom and his peers continue to focus on The Deal and tell their story to other local authority peers. Central to The Deal was, as it always is, change management within the council; he says: 

We created new roles to be a connector, and we try really hard to make sure that the workforce knows how important it is to get on the side of the residents. You have to be humble and honest. 

The culture is really important, as it is a genuine team effort in Wigan. We make sure that people come together, and we lose the lanyards, for example.

As part of The Deal, Wigan Council trained its staff in ethnology - the study of people -  in order to ensure its staff took time to talk and listen to the individual needs of the citizens. This was about more than appearing to be a warm and fuzzy organization, Winterbottom says:

Put the assessment form away and have a conversation with people. It is simple but profound.

One example Winterbottom shares is of a local pensioner, he is a keen runner, but dementia led to him getting lost a number of times and having to be found and returned home by the police. With the UK's police forces over stretched and under-funded, the running had to be stopped; this led to their dementia worsening.

When visited by Wigan Council, the ethnology training meant the family was asked what would make a difference to them, rather than being asked to complete a document and enter into a process. Allowing the pensioner to get back to running would benefit everyone in the family. Wigan Council didn't put its official powers into play; instead, Wigan Council embraced the people of its community and put the pensioner in touch with another local runner. Now the pensioner has a running buddy who ensures he both runs and gets home safely. 

And the role of technology in this new approach is, according to Winterbottom: 

The digital strategy is really about how we enhance humanity. The key thing is a relentless focus over these 10 years on the resident. The approach is not a strategy, it is a philosophy, and digital is part of that.

We learned that we didn't know a lot about the residents, yet we went into their homes to care for them or fix things. We didn't know what made them happy and what their best day looked like.

Highway to satisfaction

No matter the location, the region's roads are the defining factor in how the local authority and community is perceived. For Wigan Council, road repairs have been the driver for its technology transformation and the relationship with citizens. As Business Manager at Wigan Council Samantha Cross says: 

Highways are key frontline services. We all use them for work, school or deliveries, so the condition of them is very important. Politically we get a lot of contact from elected members and MPs too.

Cross says in 2015, the Wigan Council contact centre fielded the bulk of communications about the region's roads in a business process that relied on paperwork and work tickets. If a paper document went missing, gaps appeared in the quality of service, as well as the roads. In 2016 Wigan adopted the ReportIT app, and this was a step forward for the local authority; Cross says:  

This led to better triage via the App, as we were able to integrate it to the back office so that the highways inspectorate could see a report from a citizen on a tablet device.

However, Wigan was striving for technology to increase communication back and forth between the council and residents. She says: 

We wanted a system that would communicate with the resident that something was going to happen.

At that time, Wigan had engaged public sector technology specialists Jadu. The authority decided to task Jadu with integrating its Galaxy platform with the Mayrise Systems highway maintenance technology. Jadu and the Wigan Council team developed a mobile reporting functionality that validates a reported issue with the roads and creates real-time updates of the inspection, work being carried out and completion. Cross says: 

It saves time, costs and makes for happier citizens. Customer complaints have reduced, and dealing with the cost of the inquiry has reduced significantly.

Wigan is among a number of local authorities that have opted for a citizens account approach to centralizing services and relationships with tax payers. Wigan Council launched its My Account in January 2021, adding a further level of personalization and communications to its relationship with citizens.  

Wigan has taken the My Account concept further, though, using it as a way to work with its 75 elected council members. Assistant Business Partner Paul Banks explains: 

Councillors often bypass the system. I'm not criticising them; email and the phone are often quicker.

In 2021, Wigan Council found that 65% of its councillors were bypassing the ReportIT app. The reason, ReportIT worked well for citizens but less so for councillors, whose queries to council staff were complex and required supporting material such as images, attached emails and documents. ReportIT didn't have the functionality to support their needs. Banks says: 

Councillors are your eyes and ears for the services that we offer. They are passionate about their constituents.

Using the same approach to human centric design, a councillors system was developed to give councillors the confidence that work was being done and that they would be kept informed. In addition, Wigan created guidance videos and a digital buddy system to help councillors get the most from digitisation. Joanne Rooney, Service Manager for the Wigan Council contact centre, says: 

If an inquiry bounces around the system, then the councillors will stop using it. Members also like and need data on how many days it takes to resolve issues.

In 2022 to 2023, Wigan Council found that its approach was working; 96% of its members had submitted an inquiry to the system. This benefits the council staff too, who can focus on delivering outcomes rather than spending time keeping councillors informed, as automation has taken on this task. 

My take 

Austerity, a decade on, has been revealed as a misguided experiment and ultimately a failure. Its defenders will point to necessity being the spark for innovation. However, after spending a day with the team at Wigan Council, it is clear that a passion for community-led to innovations in human-centric design and then better services and savings. 

The necessity of austerity was, at best, an accelerator. Change management is about communications and leadership; Wigan Council has benefited from political and leadership stability and an ethos to deliver for its people using technology. 

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