20 Years Of Transformation with Alex Cousins, Business Development Director at Capita
With over 20 years’ experience working within local authorities, you must have seen a huge evolution with the rise of digital since the 1980s. Can you talk us through your working history and what working within local authorities over the past two decades has looked like?
When I started work it was all paper-based. We used to put codes in when I was working at Liverpool City Council- that’s how we would assess housing benefit. We would put codes on pieces of paper and the girls in the computer room would punch it in. We had huge mainframes with masses of paper; it is hilarious really when you look back. We didn't have computers or mobile phones at town halls back then, it was terminals with green screens. Things have come a long way in the last twenty years with the uptake of technology, how accessible it is and how it has been embraced by citizens, consumers, everyone really.
How has emerging technology and working within a more digital environment been received and adopted within the public sector?
Everything has changed but at the same time everything has stayed the same. In terms of adopting technology, you need to get people’s hearts and minds on side, otherwise they won’t use it. When implementing digital transformation, you have to go in with an argument and a business plan to do it. Things can move so much faster now and when things have failed, half the time it is not because the technology, it is because people have not accepted it, do not want to use it or do not see the need for it. Years ago, I was part of a team in Liverpool and our transformation journey was called “From Seaport to E-port” because of the docks. We put all kinds of technology in, but our ethos was built around the customer. We looked at what we were already doing and how we could improve on processes when implementing technology. That was a massive project and we ended up building the largest public contact centre in Europe. It was huge with 400 seats and open 24/7. All of this change came from three switchboards! It took two years to set up, but we could do it and it was worth it.
I was involved in other projects as well, like e-voting. We still use mainly paper and pen for voting - the technology was there to do it electronically, but no one wanted to do it. They were terrified that the result be skewed if we voted electronically because the people who would use it would be young people, who might vote in a different way than the older generation. We did implement e-voting and it did not change the result. Yet, the e-voting is still not widespread in the UK.
Could you tell us a bit more about your work history?
When Liverpool Council transformed itself into an e-success, I started to get noticed. People called me to let me know there was a job at Hammersmith and Fulham Council as Head of E-government. I always fancied working in London so I went for it and got it.
I lead the transformation at the Council and I put together a “customer first” programme, which was brilliant and had its own challenges. When I joined Hammersmith and Fulham Council, it was already an “excellent authority” so there was no reason for them to change. Yet, politicians were saying that on the doorstep that they were getting complaints from customers that the Council was hard to deal with. I put in another contact centre there as well as some back-office systems together. I led the changes and it was really good; it was hard work but brilliant. All the staff wanted to help and were desperate to make these changes.
Following my experience at Hammersmith and Fulham Council, I was offered the opportunity to consult in other councils. I would go in and have a look at things. Sometimes you just need a fresh pair of eyes to say, “This is the area you need to focus on.” I really enjoyed being a consultant and all the problem-solving that accompanied that.
After consulting, I joined the private sector, even though I never thought I would work in the private sector. I joined Sopra Steria, working on local government consulting, which was great. It allowed me to see 30-50 councils over a couple years and it see the similar issues. It was brilliant as I got to go all over the country problem-solving and trying to improve services.
I joined BT in the days of massive out-sourcing. We would not just change a process but a large organisation. We worked in South Tyneside and Lancashire and I enjoyed my time there. Then I worked at HP, a proper tech company, where I met brilliant people. We were keen on using big data for public good. I was excited by all the things the software could do like taking an order from unstructured data and making sense out of it. I could see how it could be applied. I got into future cities then smart cities, pollution, and transport, among other areas.
I have ended up in Capita, which is a big company but focuses more on providing servcies. We are going through a revolution at the moment, using all the technology and the data that we have because it is a large company. We are aiming to bring some new propositions to the market using both technology and data.
What are your top takeaways from regularly visiting 40 councils?
I am a people person. I think all councils are more or less the same, they do the same stuff usually in the same way. For me, my favourite memories are about the people. There are some really innovative and bold people I met along the way. They are the ones who did amazing things. It is funny, you would go into one council and meet someone then go into the next council and there would be someone very similar. As soon as you met them, you would think, “Oh, you’re just the same as so and so in South Tyneside.” They would have the same sort of opinion, so you could fast-track and help people more quickly because you knew their mentality.
Other great memories concern the politicians, who have to be brave to change things. They are getting elected year in, year out, and they are stewards of public money. They have to know whether technology is going to help rather than just being a fantasy project.
Collaboration is so important: can you tell us more about how you share knowledge and best practices?
I call myself the “chief joiner of the dots”, that’s what I say. I am good at seeing things, a great example of this was with the Digital Norfolk Ambition, which was led by a brilliant leader. It was about bringing information together to be used for different purposes. When you started looking at Norfolk, you had the local authority, the university, the chamber of commerce, and the tech community, all trying to do the same thing but from different points of view. All I did was talk to them all and became the conduit. We created a hackathon and we would say to the Council, “Give us ten things that you have been trying to solve.” We would give those issues to the hackathon where the technology community and academics would be working, and they would then come up with solutions and idea. The team and I just brought the people together. That’s what I love, bringing people from different disciplines together who are trying to tackle the same problem without realising. I think we are seeing more and more of that now, especially with councils and having lost 40% of their funds due to austerity. Councils cannot afford to do it alone, they need to bring the community in, and so you’re seeing a lot more collaboration now than ever before.
When you were at HP, you worked with our CIO Marco, I believe?
Marco was actually the one that blew me away with a bit of software. I gave him a serious case review, which is a social services document, and I asked him to see what information could get from that. He knew nothing about social services, but I wanted to know what the software can do. He came up with all sorts of things and I was blown away with the fact that the software can become more intelligent if you let it. I also understood from that that we need collaboration and not just because it is really fun!
Capita work across a range of sectors including local government, central government, insurance and private sector helping clients solve complex issues, increase productivity, enhance the use of technology and data. Can you talk us through what this looks like and any examples of best use cases?
Some of the headline numbers blow your mind. We work with 95% of local authorities, collecting billions of pounds a year on behalf of people. We are the largest consultancy helping with planning and building. We support 320 million people across the world each day, process 6.9 billion in payments and 1 million in council tax a year. Our software is in 21,000 schools, we are quite big! We also have a community of small specialist organisations so you benefit from that community of start-ups as well. It is the best of both worlds.
We are undergoing a huge transformation as a business at the moment. We realized we are not using all the data we have to its full potential, especially with what we can do with digital. I have recently changed roles and moved into a digital practice. There are currently six people, but it is going to build up over the next few months to a year. It is all about using our data, knowledge and client base to create brand-new digital propositions, which is really exciting for me! In the public sector, people have been talking about government as a platform, but I think we are the ones who can actually make that happen if that is what the public sector wants. I go back to the HP days of “predict, prevent, respond”. There is lots of potential with the data as long we make sure it is used ethically.
Prevention is a key theme and we were recently talking to Lloyds bank about it on the podcast. Can you tell us more about how things are changing in the workplace with the rise of digital?
Waterfall projects are no longer the way businesses work. Instead, it is agile, it is quick. Everything is issue lead, it is not just using technology for technology’s sake. You can quite quickly come up with a solution in weeks not years. The ease with which we can help people excites me. What I worry about is digital skills, since we are all competing for the same people and we need to focus on building those skills at school and university.
The robots and the co-bots will help. I had a great session in January, bringing together the planning community from Greater Manchester and academics from Salford University as well as the tech community, about planning and future cities. We were trying to show the planners that technology exists that can help them. We introduced them to Ellie the robot, who can follow rules and assess simple housing applications, relieving them to work on more complex plans. They accepted it and then we even discussed expanding Ellie’s role. We then looked at brownfield sites and Cheryl Jones, an MSc Data Science student, could come to the same conclusions from the data as the planners who drew their conclusions from 30-40 years of experience. In the future, councils will have access to data scientists who can manipulate the data, and the robots will be taking over the more mundane things.
I did look at doing an MSc in Data Science myself because I find it so fascinating. I do not think most schools could teach computer science at the moment. You are better getting your base subjects together, like Maths and Physics, at school. I have been pushing my sons in that direction!
Could you tell us more about the findings made by Data Scientist, Cheryl Jones?
It was Capita’s first experience with working with Salford University data science community – a bit of a pilot. I wanted to bring data science to the planning community exploring how they could work together. As I say, Cheryl came up with conclusions that the planning officials already knew but because of their 30-40 years’ experience. She looked at the brownfield sites and showed that certain criteria make sites more attractive. So, it is easier to convince builders to build on land that evidence shows us, as it is by a train station or shop, will increase in value. Councils can be more proactive about things like that, the data exists but it is in a register. Most builders do not have the time to go in, look at the register and figure out what it means.
Knowledge is not as valuable as people think it is anymore since a machine can come in and quickly come to the same conclusion in two weeks that took a planning official 20 years to master. That is a big change, knowledge no longer being power. The planning community’s vast experience could now be better spent generating valuable planning policy, enforcement and consultation approach.
It is worth saying that just because the evidence points to these things, it does not mean that humans will adopt it. People will work in a different way in the future. I read an article by Daniel Pink called “The Whole Brain Approach” discussing evolution. He painted a picture of the left brain being equivalent to tasks which can be automated. However, we still need the right brain stuff, like creativity and storytelling which cannot be automated. With councils, who are under-resourced and have lost about a quarter of planners in the last 5-10 years, as one example, could use bots to help with that shortage. We also need data science people, but we do not currently have enough people trained up so bots would be helpful there.
Given your vast experience across various sectors, how do you approach a digital transformation project?
Many words come to mind. Firstly, issue-led, do not just do things for the sake of doing them. Other words are user-designed, collaborative (you need all the people in the room), purposeful, ambition combined with practicality, ecosystems, and rapid MVP to give people confidence that you are going in the right direction. After you have rapid MVP you can think about scaling up. The combination of human and machine with apps, data, algorithm and automation connecting with customer or employee experience to deliver clear value. I like to spend more time at the concept stage and get everyone on the same page then you can motor through. It can take longer to do but you get the best quality product that way.
Are there common themes across all sectors when it comes to digital transformation?
I think there are common themes: people want to connect and collaborate, and they want digital solutions that can help them do that. Those themes exist no matter what sector you are in. I think back over the contact centres years and years ago. The private sector introduced them first because they had the money to install them and they could save and even make money out of them. The public sector learnt from the private sector in that case. It is really about funding; the same challenges happen across both industries. Yet, banking and retail take on new technologies more rapidly than the public sector because it is harder to make the case to invest in the public sector. It is easier to convince people in the public sector when it has already been built in the private sector and then apply it to public sector problems, like collecting bins.
How has the “Northern Powerhouse” project been rolled out? What are your findings?
My perspective on the Northern Powerhouse is that it is a narrative, it is saying we need to rebalance the economy and come together to do so. It is successful because people are now talking about it, you’ve got user groups like the Northern Powerhouse Women and the People’s Powerhouse. People in the North want to get their voices heard, it is not just about transport or infrastructure. Just yesterday Kerslake came out with a report saying that the initiative is not working. The country is still very London-centric and there needs to more investment in the North as well as anywhere outside of the South East and London to rebalance the economy.
So, the Northern Powerhouse is a step in the right direction but there is not a lot of teeth, power or money behind it yet. Yet, it is positive because we have a narrative to do something with and people are starting to tackle big issues such as transport, skills, green energy, housing, and health. It’s a work in progress, I would say.
What emerging technologies are you most excited about and why?
I really like the immersive stuff that is coming out now. I went to Alder Hey Hospital and they put me inside a virtual reality heart. It took my breath away, I could move it around and see everything. They take images of a patient’s heart and let the surgeons see where they should go with their operations. In the past, the surgeons would have had to open up and look around. Now we can go into these virtual reality hearts. Things like that touch people’s emotions and will actually get used because they appeal to us as social animals. How we apply that in everyday life is what I get excited about.
I took a group to Salford University and they have a room you can go in where it is all virtual reality. I saw them use it for training emergency services on a busy motorway, which was amazing. I was thinking we could use it for planning applications to show people how the building would actually look to prevent the arguments that currently occur. There is a lot of potential for virtual reality to change the way we work.
Transport yourself to 2025 - how will local government have evolved?
You look back and think how much things have stayed the same and have changed! I think local authorities are going to be even more connected places, which are more reliant on technologies, platforms, and market places. Jobs in local authorities will be completely different and more creative because it will be a whole brain collaboration. There will still be democratic structures, but will e-voting come in? Probably not! Demographics will also have changed greatly, with lots of people my age left and new people, including my son, coming in. Local government will have to be a different organisation to encourage those people to be a part of it!
What tools or apps could you simply not live without?
Whatsapp, it is just so easy - everyone can use it. That is the kind of thing that does not have to be complicated but I could not organize my life without Whatsapp. Superbru is how we bond as a family predicting the football scores. Those two things are not going to change the world, but they have changed the way we organize ourselves as a family and everyone uses them.