Wolverhampton’s journey from Big Iron to proactive analytics

Profile picture for user gflood By Gary Flood August 10, 2017
Facing budget challenges, the West Midlands city’s turning to intense use of data to help both staff and residents. We speak to digital chief, Andy Hoare.

Five years ago, Wolverhampton City Council still ran its IT off an in-house mainframe – with most applications still home-brewed internally.

But in a couple of years, it’ll be firmly in the era of proactive analytics and aggressive use of data to drive policy – a change we can all agree is quite a remarkable one. Perhaps even more so when you realise that this isn’t a London, a Liverpool or an Edinburgh, we’re talking about but a relatively deprived, densely populated city of just 250,000, in an area badly affected by the 2007 downturn.

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s less affluent cities, there’s a strong demand for council services in this part of the sprawling West Midlands conurbation, with support for residents and a hard-pressed local economy big priorities for the council, a 5,000–strong body keen to do the best job it can for the area.

Central to this evolution is one Andy Hoare, the former Head of IT who started at the council as a lowly junior programmer some 26 years ago, but who is now the newly-promoted Digital Transformation Programme Director at the Town Hall.

Hoare, who leads a team of 85 at the body (Wolverhampton being what he calls a ‘sourced’ public sector IT operator), agrees he’s seen some changes over the years, but what’s happening now is easily the most exciting:

What we’re all about here now is maximizing the value out of all the data we have to get the most value out of it, transforming the way we deliver services to the people of Wolverhampton as a result.

And as far as he’s concerned, everything’s starting to click into place, with the first fruits of an ambitious change plan he helped kick off at the start of 2016 starting to appear.

That plan centres on consolidating off the then-recent port off its old Big Iron to a new way of working based around Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) from Agresso, which he says was the first decisive part of the change.

That was accompanied by a revolution in the way the council performs its customer services, he says.

We were doing well enough, but we had scattered customer service responsibility in multiple departments; there was no consistency or common standard.

Plus, he admits, there was insufficient technological support to deliver this “effectively and efficiently”. To fix the problem, the council decided to make a big push into bringing all its customer facing work under one integrated umbrella utilising a carefully architected mix of Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Master Data Management (MDM) and Business Intelligence (BI), he says.

Right from the start, this programme had two goals; save money while allowing the council to do a better job for residents.

Like all parts of the public sector, Wolverhampton faces severe budget challenges, so we need to work out how to deliver services differently. But really, to do that well you need to get right inside how the service is both delivered but also consumed. That has to be about collecting the right data about them and feeding it back to the decision-makers so they can only ever make decisions based on real facts and insights about what’s really happening, so we started to look for a set of tools to help us deliver against that idea.

Another key deliverable would be the ability, he adds, to ask the ‘what-if?’ questions that could allow process designers to see if services could be improved and delivered with lowered cost but greater value to their users.

Insights for multiple local stakeholders

Clearly, then, Business Intelligence was going to be a big part of all this, and Wolverhampton has indeed acquired a set of BI tools from suppliers like Business Objects and various Microsoft SQL reporting tools that make important contributions, he says.

But the next step in the journey is focused on the expanded role of the Qlik business intelligence and visualisation software suite inside the council, it seems. The idea: use the software to put more power in the hands of staff, but also feed a new set of key performance indicator dashboards to start pulling together all the information the future council needs to deliver that fact-based policy making he and his leadership team deem necessary.

These performance-led dashboards, he states, are starting to both illustrate and measure customer service right across Wolverhampton’s communication channels. And firmly seeing this as part of that on-going digital transformation process he’s been leading, for Hoare the extended use of tools like QlikView with Qlik Connectors and Qlik Sense will soon, hopefully, be pumping out insights that can inform not just him and his council colleagues but everyone across the city, be they citizens, front-line staff, suppliers, politicians and senior council executives.

Hoare is happy to admit that this is an on-going process, but he has a plan to deliver. For one thing, the move has reduced the time taken to analyse data from seven days to run some reports to near instantly, and data quality is also much higher, he is convinced. He also has a concrete new process to point to; a new customer service integrated service, which sucks in data from all online interactions, any public surveys, face-to-face meetings, phone calls or email correspondence which can then be mined for insight into how and why citizens are interacting with customer services, what their requests are, and how the council responded.

Wolverhampton can now also capture insight from its social media channels to see the quantity of interactions or likes its posts are getting and see what type of communications seems to hit home most with council tax payers, he claims.

The next process Hoare wants to look at: social care. Here, data will be gathered from a number of sources including volunteer reports so as to cross-compare with those in need of care and match the two up. If this works, he says, it could cut the number of social worker outcalls while making sure those who need care are receiving sufficient attention.

Inside six months, I want to see a small set of very useful dashboards in house, but inside 12 to 18 months they have to be developed and integrated with our other data sources. The plan with social services will then be the model for our other services; use data to achieve early intervention – which both saves money but also produces the best outcomes for people, too.