Digital Transformation in UK & NZ Local Authorities

Digital Transformation in UK & NZ Local Authorities


An interview with Lucy Olivia Hopkins, Digital Marketing Manager, We Build Bots and Kieron McGhie, Strategic Transformation Workstream Lead at Barking and Dagenham Council


I've worked for local authorities for many years, I think I was 19 when I first started. I was working as a Street Mason, I started from the ground up, literally working in the ground! I started off in Highways and worked my way up through lots of different Council departments doing lots of different things. When I was 29 I branched out and went to New Zealand, we spent seven years in Hamilton, and six years in Christchurch.


When you work in the Council for so many years you get to understand local authorities and the way that people work and how organisations are put together. You start to recognise and understand the patterns across different Councils. This is really useful when you're doing the sort of work that I do now which is transformation and change and digital implementations, as you understand the nuts and bolts of the organisation, you can see where you need to put emphasis, work and energy to fix the various problems that exist in local authorities.


Budget cuts are a big challenge for Councils, what changes have you implemented that have saved money?


In New Zealand, I worked on the Asset Management Project which collated all the various assets (assets can be a park-bench, a tree or a building for example) into one management system, overseen by one group of people. This saves money, because you don't need as many people and you don't need as many systems.


I've also worked on the ‘My Account’ product for various Councils. Here we reduced the volume of work for the Customer Services team by allowing the customer to have direct access to their account.  Without having to call Customer Services, the customer can use their account for example, to report a pot hole or they can look at their housing benefit or their Library account, all in one place. This gives the customer a much more efficient journey but it also saves money by reducing the amount of people needed to answer customer phone calls.


It's not all about reducing Customer Services headcount. The local authorities I’ve worked with have predominantly been trying to make things better for their customers, make things, smarter, faster, and more intuitive. And that’s what’s happening, it’s really cool. It's a great thing to be involved in and I've been involved in it for many years now! I love it.


Worldwide, Councils are working on digital transformation strategies. Can you tell us how you've approached digital transformation for the Councils you've worked for?


Every Council is different, they all run slightly differently and they've got different management teams and management structures. However, there is a general way that I personally like to approach the work that I do for local authorities.


I start by understanding and capturing the strategic needs of the organisation. You wouldn't set out on a journey without having a map and knowing where you're heading. The organisation needs to understand where they want to head, what their strategic organisational direction is. I work with the organisations to capture and understand that direction, then that will turn into a strategic vision. They'll say ‘we want to achieve this as an organisation and the vision is therefore to take us from this particular point to that particular point’.


After that, we need to build a team of significance (I call it this as they are one of the most significant teams that are going to make the transformation). I will work with the local authority to pull together a group of people who are going to develop and lead that change and transformation in the organisation. Pulling this team together is a really important part of my work, it’s almost like how you’d approach creating a football team. I need the best players and for those players to work well together. The key is getting the right people to do the right roles. I work tirelessly on this one. I do the screening and interviewing with a view to creating a high performance team who will deliver the change and transformation optimally. We look for people who are already in the organisation as well as contractors. I've seen some marvellous transformations take place when you pull those teams together.


Typically, but it does depend on the size of the project, the team has a Programme Director,  a Delivery Lead and a Change Engagement and Readiness Lead, that was my role. I looked after the training, the change the business analysis and the testing. The people working in those areas, Testers, Business Analysts, Project Managers, Programme Managers, were my team, reporting to me. I interviewed them and assembled the team. We then work together to deliver the particular digital product into the local authority.


Once we build this team of significance, and I can’t emphasise how important that is, we build a site-specific approach and delivery method. Whatever they specifically need it will be tailor made for them almost like a suit, it’ll contain the essential building blocks for that authority.


Typically though, we have the initiation, covering what we’re doing, the strategy and the training methodology. We’ll then do some pre-engagement with the people in the organisation, explaining the plan to them. If you're taking people on a journey, you've got to explain where you're going. Then we'll get into some workshops and start gathering requirements. There's a bit of training to do to actually get people to understand what business requirements are.


Once we’ve gathered the requirements, we look at products, and evaluate them against the requirements to eventually select the product we’re going to use. Then we get into build and test, before finally rolling the product out.


As part of this whole process, we work with the people who will use these tools, capturing their creativity around how they are going to best use the new technology. We train them, up-skill them and then the goal is for us is to exit as soon as possible. We're not there to draw a pension! We're there to actually help these organisations and to move them from where they are today to where they need to be: transformed, changed and digitally enabled.


What would you say are the top challenges faced by Councils across the UK and New Zealand?


I think that there are a number of challenges. One of the biggest is the lack of understanding of the people who are doing the transformation work. The very people you're going to use to transform your organisation may or may not be aware of the various technologies which could be used. Technology is moving at such a pace, the challenge is training up those people so that they understand what is available. For example, Chatbot, people who've been around in transformation change for a number of years, using an older methodology or approach, may not know about Chatbot, may not know about AI, may not know about Blockchain. There's a real challenge there in getting people up-skilled and trained in readiness for the change.


Also there is the challenge of the availability of digital solutions across the environment. Just because you might know about something doesn't mean that the people are available. Further to that, what is the resource capability within your organisation? How will you know someone's doing something well if you don't have the experience to know what digital transformation looks like. A real challenge for local authorities is how they prepare themselves to be ready to undertake a digital transformation. It's really difficult to manage something that you've never done before. For example, if you don’t know about bots, AI or Blockchain how are you going to know what needs to be done?


Which of the implementations of new technologies into local authorities would you say was the biggest success story?


There’s so many that I could choose from but one that springs to mind is the implementation of the Asset Management system. It was a massive piece of work, we were taking all of the assets from the city of Christchurch, before the earthquake, trying to get an understanding of what they were, where they were, how how valuable they were and the costs of them and then put them into one system. Then getting all of the various teams that work across the council, the Roading Department, Highways, Green Space people, working together in one way, using one system. That was a massive transformation piece of work and a massive technology piece of work. We used something called SAP as the basis and then we transformed the organisation by putting all of that information into one system. That was a really challenging, large scale piece of work.


Were you in Christchurch before and after the earthquake?


Yes, we were. Actually, we’d moved to England and we were back in New Zealand on holiday when the big one hit. I went to work in the Civil Defence Centre just after the earthquake. It was quite a traumatic time for the people of Christchurch, for all of us. However, the resilience of the people there is just fantastic. They made use of the space, the demolition sites, they created pop up restaurants and cafés, it was brilliant.


Which new technologies are you most excited about?


I've got a few! For me, some of the most important things are the new technologies that I can see are totally going to reshape how the Council runs. Technologies like AI, robotics, natural language, Internet of Things and Blockchain. I'm excited because those tools are new to lots of organisations and individuals, myself included. But, when you start to learn more about robotics, AI, chatbots and the way that natural language can be utilised the options for us are limitless in terms of the changes we can make.


It doesn't need to be thought of just in terms of what it can provide for the customer, it can be used internally, for our people in the organisation to navigate them through their various processes. How good is that?! Being able to tech-enable the Councils that we work with and other local authorities, it’s just amazing! Just the ability to store information about an individual or an asset on the Blockchain is going to be quite something. I think it's going to transform the way that local authorities are put together and the way that they work.


There’s a perception that Chatbots are just about answering frequently asked questions but they are so much more. Internally, it provides almost a constant concierge service, whether you use it as part of a HR or recruitment tool or a retention tool. There are also analytical capabilities in the back-end to create swarms of people as to how they behave, then you can re-market to them keeping them in the loop. The options are endless , it is such an exciting space.


Yes, I would agree. We've almost been waiting, not just organisationally, but around the world, for some of these advancements. They've been talked about for many years, but now we're at the point where they're not just being talked about they're real, they're here on our doorstep, they’re ready for us to use, and that's exciting. Working in the local authority right now, where all these things are available, is really great. It's no longer something that we talk about being able to do ‘one day’. Now we can do it, today! We're living in exciting times when change is suddenly possible. It's tremendous!


A lot of Councils are overwhelmed by the idea of digital transformation, what first steps and best practices would you suggest for them?


Many local authorities are at this point where they're thinking about what they can do, how they can improve things, where can they make savings and there seems to be almost a division between two groups of people. There’s a group of local authorities who are absolutely committed to digital transformation, they understand it and want to get stuck in. Then there's another group who don't know what the first step is so that they can then make the additional steps that they need to.


The first step is to work out where they’re wanting to end up and what exactly they’re wanting to end up with. What are the outcomes they're looking to achieve? We talked before about the journey, when they start their journey, they’ve got to know where they are headed, what is it  they want to look like in five years time as a local authority, what sort of organisation do they want to be? Another important thing is to ask themselves, ‘why are we doing this and for what purpose? It shouldn’t be just to get in the headlines and say that they’re a top Council. It should actually be for the customer. If it doesn't equate to some improvements for the customer then they might not want to spend their time and energy on the project. Then they need to ask: when do we want to have these things in place, what’s the time-line?


They also needs to look at the organisational capability. Before they start down the ‘let’s do this digitally’ route, they need to consider how many people in their organisation know about digital transformation and all of the advancements coming up such as Chatbots, AI and robotics. The challenge is to understand the current ability and capability of your people. Do you need to bring in some outside help, some contractors, who will work on your behalf? Or it might mean that you need to invest some money into up-skilling your staff. Just because a person is a capable Manager or a capable Director, it doesn't mean that you’ve then got the digital capability to roll out the things that you need.


They need to put together a team of significance. A bunch of people who can do the change and transformation work, experienced people who understand the pitfalls, people who can take you on this journey because they've already done it. There are a whole bunch of people out there who can do this work. There's also people within your own organisation who can join this team and they can then take the project forward once the team of significance is gone.


I would say to organisations, the first steps to start their transformation journey are to: do the prep work, understand where they’re going, where they want to be, when they want to get there, understand your own capability and build upon it if necessary.


How do you see technologies such as AI, machine learning, chatbots, voice technology and data capture transforming councils over the coming years?


Let’s take Chatbots as an example, how is that going to help? Well, it's going to give the customer contact 24-7, 365 days a year. They can contact the organisation, via the chat bar, anytime of the day or night and get the answers that they need in a very natural, non-robotic way, which is a wonderful thing! From a customer journey perspective, the improvement that this brings is vast. They get the answers they need, anytime they need them, without feeling like they’re being managed by a system or a tool as Chatbot uses natural language.


Then, if we look at Blockchain, it’s a distributed ledger, essentially what we can actually do now is take valuable pieces of Council information, that are currently not available to the person themselves and share that with them via the Blockchain so they can see the very things that they've been looking for. That can be anytime of the day again it's 24-7, 365 days a year.


Currently, I'm working on a project with the Government Blockchain Association to look at using a currency to help the local authorities to decrease the amount of debt they've got on their books. One of the biggest challenges that the Councils have got is the amount that people owe through rent or unpaid Council Tax. This is a way of using Blockchain technology to allow people to pay off their debts in a very innovative, different way, almost using sweat equity and the Blockchain to pay off their debt. It’s a very interesting concept, we're only in the very early stages but I’m working with the Government Blockchain Association to implement that hopefully, across the UK.


That sounds so interesting, could you talk more about that?


It's a fascinating piece of work, I’m really excited about it. At a very basic level, there's lots of debt in local authorities and part of the issue is that people can't find a way to pay that back. They're stuck in a cycle of poverty that they can’t break out of.  We've got a lot of in-work-poor people. This is about enabling them, through various activities, to pay back the debt. That might mean enabling them, for example, to do some work and then exchange that work for some money on the Blockchain and reduce their debt. It's really exciting stuff. It's all voluntary, people don’t have to do it but it empowers them to get out of debt themselves, to buy back some dignity.


What do you think local authorities of the future will look like?


This is a great question! I've been around local authorities for such a long time now, that for years I've been imagining what local authorities might look like going forward. For many years there wasn't the emphasis that we've got now and so the desire and need for change wasn't really there. Some of it is through austerity and that’s quite sad but, nevertheless, we're still in this place where we must transform. Councils can't stay the same, budgets have been cut, the organisations have had to move on. They've had to downscale and downsize and so, they're not the same organisations they used to be and they can't stay the same as they used to be.


Where do I think they're headed? I think, if we continue on this trajectory, local authorities are going to transform dramatically in the next five years. We’re going to see more local authorities involved in community work, the connection between community and local authorities is going to be much, much deeper and richer.  At the moment you may have a divide between local policy and community but, in the coming years we're going to see those start to meld together. Third sector, voluntary and community organisations, almost becoming part of the local authority, no longer on the outside, but part of this organisation, integrated into this thing called a Council.


Therefore, I think one of the biggest changes is going to be the impact of the community coming into the local authority and the local authority going out into the community, almost like a reversal. It’s going to transform the way that we think of and interact with Councils. It's going to become much more cooperative in the way that it runs, rather than being an organisation that stands alone. Where it can sometimes seem to the people that Councils stand alone, in the future they are going to be an integrated organisation with the community.


Do you have any advice for councils starting out on the digital transformation journey?


Yes, I’d say don't be afraid to ask the questions of people who've been around this space for a long time. Don't be afraid to contact people who have been in transformation and change in local authorities, just contact them. Even it’s just an informal discussion with them, it's a great thing to do, just have a coffee, have a doughnut with somebody who's been in the space! Have the discussion, talking about how these things actually work. I think there's a lot of fear in local authorities where people are afraid of new technology and the changes that need to take place but, we're no longer in a place where we can deny or ignore the changes. My call to action would be, pick up the phone and speak to someone who's done this work before, have that dialogue with them, discuss it, get into a deeper discussion about how to move things forward and what to do next.


Don't leave it, don’t think we’ll just push it down the road. Times are changing, organisations need to change and it's good to get in with the people who've done these things and to work with them. A lot of the Contractors would be more than happy to  have a discussion with local communities and the people who make the decisions to make the changes.


What tool or app could you simply not live without?!


I’ve got so many, I’m a bit of an app junkie! I think my favourite one is Notes, although it’s a bit boring! I use Notes on my iPhone, for everything, if I have an idea or thought or I'm just on the train and I want to make some notes, literally, I'll just bang them down in Note. I can always go back to them, it’s searchable so, I can easily retrieve a note by searching keywords. I just love Notes! You can paste web articles and pictures in there, it’s my favourite by far.


How can our followers find you?


They can get hold of me via LinkedIn just search for Kieron McGhie or you can email me  I’d love to hear from people, if you want to talk about these things. I’m hoping at some point this year, to get a group of change people together to have a bit of a round table. If you’re a change professional or a transformational specialist, get in touch and we can get this networking session together, it’d be really cool!


Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me it's been super interesting!


Thank you Lucy, I really appreciate the chance to talk about these things and I wish everyone well in their journeys with digital transformation wherever you are and whatever you doing, I'm sure you will succeed if you put in the time, effort and energy.