Creativity, Innovation and Self Service Strategy

This week, we caught up with Paul Ward, Head of ICT & Digital at Coventry City Council about budget cuts, how technology is being used to make savings and drive innovation as well as how they're looking to streamline their contact centre and improve the customer journey using automation, AI, chatbots and data capture.

Could you tell us about your 17 years at Coventry City Council and how you have become IT Head of Digital? 

As you say, I started 17, nearly 18, years ago as an admin assistant. My first foray into IT was Assistant Administrator for one of the systems we used. Back then IT was often outsourced, but fast-forward a few years and IT was back in-house. There have been a lot of changes within the organisation, as you would expected, over the years. To begin with, there has been a significant drive towards computerisation going from paper-based processes to using computers throughout the organisation. Since the 2000s, we have been looking more at digitisation. There has definitely been an increase on the dependency on technology. 


I’ve moved more into the software and systems development strands, which exposed me to the art of the possible with technology. I was heavily involved in CRM when that was a big thing with all the e-government initiatives that were occurring across all Local Government organisations. More recently there has been a big drive for agile and mobile working. 98% of our users have laptops and can work from anywhere with internet. We have done a lot around agility for the user. Within the past 18 months to two years we moved to a flagship new building, reducing our operational property portfolio. A large number of our users moved to a building in Friargate, recent outside the train station in Coventry, designed on the principle of hot-desking. Other Local Government organisations and private organisations have already been there. We all have laptops, docking stations on all desks and we are paper-light with the technology to support. We are always looking to make more progress towards digitization though the organisation is already unrecognisable from when I started. Most people would say I’m unrecognizable too!!


How do you find the agile way of working?

It takes a bit of getting used to. From an IT point of view, we have had the ability to hot-desk for quite some time. In my role, which I appreciate is not the case for all staff, all I need is a laptop and an internet connection to access all our systems. It works very well in the IT role but for others it has taken more adjustment as they have other interactions like with other colleagues. The building has a modern feel and it does feel similar to start-ups in a good way with kitchens and break-out areas. We have a mixture of bookable and non-bookable meeting rooms and we encourage people to collaborate on projects using technology like Skype, videoconferencing and Office365. Trying to disassociate the job from the physical space you work in is important, especially as the building was built on 7/10 desk ratio so people need to work from home or other locations more. It has been a bit of culture change for some people, but people have adapted well. Now, it is the norm whereas five years ago it was more alien to people. 


It is lovely to be able to work in the way that suits you… 

Absolutely, there is a coffee shop on the ground floor of the building and great conferencing facilities on our first floor so there are great pop-up collaboration spots, so to speak, encouraging those chance meetings which might otherwise have taken weeks to get into the diary. It is about creating different environments that suit the various ways people work to enable them to be as efficient as possible. 

How does your organisation plan on making savings? 

We have some fairly significant budget pressures for next year. Having said that, we have been on a savings journey for several years as most Local Government organisations have been owing to austerity. There has not been an element of the organisation that has not been touched by the need to make savings and be efficient. We look to take advantage of technology where we can to support those savings. It covers a myriad of things like ensuring we fully understand our data and processes. Over the past few years we have built a data warehouse, which we are looking to pool more data in, so we understand ourselves better. One of the best things about being a Local Government organisation is that we offer over 300 services compared to most private sector organisations which offer one or two. Staff at all levels are wearing many hats and understanding so much data can be quite a challenge, especially when we have hundreds of systems. We have invested in a data warehouse and we are working with a data analytics team to understand our data and services better.


Moving on to the tools we are using to become more efficient. We have had a big drive to self-service, which has helped with efficiency. We are looking to make our employees more efficient through the use of mobile technology and laptops, continually evolving our systems to make sure they are up-to-date. One of our challenges is our business’s processes which are a bit old. We are looking to make sure our services are delivered in the most efficient way. We are just about to kick off the next phase of digitisation agenda, examining our services more forensically. We exploit every available opportunity for savings while still providing excellent services to our constituents. 



Could you tell us more about the next digitisation phase you have planned? 

It is early days, but we are planning to expand the use of self-service in our council tax and benefits systems, which are currently where we receive the highest amount of calls. We are always looking at greater ways to mobilise staff across the workforce from the financial assessment team to street wardens and refuse collectors. We are working on various programmes around mobile technology and smarter working. Looking at the wider city, we are examining other potential streams of income like Wi-Fi in the city centre and the commercialisation aspects that technology brings such as advertising revenue. Lots of plates spinning, we are still in early days. 


Are you thinking of implementing a chatbot? 

We have researched chatbots a lot in the past years. There has been an explosion in bot technology as it has become more mature. We are in the fortunate position of having a software development team in-house, as I mentioned that is an area I used to work in myself. We want to develop chatbots for our own internal IT service desk. We want to make sure our IT knowledge articles have chatbots attached.


From a customer service perspective, we are considering various bot options. A big element is not necessarily the technology, because it is wonderful, it is our own knowledge base that will feed the chatbot. 


It’s so important to collect and utilise the data that you can gain from things like live chat so that this can then feed into and tailor your bot according to what your customers are looking for.


That is a really interesting point. I think something with bot technology and machine learning as concepts is that with a new member of staff you would not expect them to hit the ground running on day one – there would be a period of training. With AI, machine learning and chatbots it is the same, like with a human they need to learn before they can work to their full capacity. 


Having that reasonable expectation when embarking on the journey is key… 

I completely agree. In financially challenging times, people expect a quick return on investment so I can understand why people expect introducing chatbots will immediately improve the service. But we need to bring some pragmatism to it and manage those expectations. 


There is also the question of driving traffic to the chatbots.

There is definitely some marketing and cultural work to do. When getting car insurance or using banking services, people are okay with having a chatbot conversation. For some people, like me, it works better because you can be doing it in the background while getting on with emails or other work and still getting that humanistic experience. However, when it comes to Local Government, is that what people would expect from our service? It comes down to the view of Local Government which is seen differently because it is funded through council tax. We need to build incrementally to make sure it is successful rather than suddenly launching an army of chatbots which do not meet the public’s expectation. 


Currently, is data capture mainly coming from your contact centre? 

We have a number of online forms that we encourage members of the public to fill in themselves. They are the same forms that customer service would fill in if you phoned. It is probably an even split between online and our customer service centre. 


Are you looking at contact centre automation? 

Yes, some of the chatbot stuff we have been looking at has the contact centre in mind. We have had a big drive on self-service. Over the past couple of weeks, we have implemented a new telephony platform for our customer service centre trying to help with call queues. We already have automated telephony payments available, but we are continually looking to strike the right balance between customer experience and efficiency. The new telephony platform we have launched is helping with that. It is the start of our next phase in terms of our wider digitisation programme. 


How would you like personalisation of your services to look? 

It is an interesting one and I think it is a challenge that the majority of councils will struggle with. You need to understand your data fully. Whilst there has been a big drive for CRM, we have hundreds of systems which might all have a customer record in. So how do we make sure that customer a in our CRM matches to one in council tax? Tying all that data together is a challenge particularly in light of GDPR. There is definitely more of a focus on treating data as an asset rather than getting it to complete a form and get on with your job. A significant part of our job is getting our staff to understand the value of data. We also work closely with health in our social care world and are examining ways to tie our data into that of the NHS to make sure there is a more unified experience for people. There is no golden bullet and it continues to be difficult. We are doing a lot of work on data internally, with the data warehouse for example. Through our data warehouse we developed a method called “click and fix” when data is pulled into the warehouse it checks the existing data against a set of predetermined rules. In this scenario, you cannot have a date of death that is before a date of birth, for example. It will send an email to the development staff to notify them to change the records. We are chipping through that in terms of data quality. By no means are we at the end of that process and it continues to be a high priority but crucially the organisation is now understanding the real value of data and the difference it can make to organisational efficiency moving forwards.  


How would you describe the rewards of creating a data warehouse? 

It is amazing when you start to look under the hood of the warehouse with all the rows of data we pull into it and the amount of work that it does to produce the data we use. It makes you appreciate the breadth and depth of Local Government services. 



Tell us more about your digital transformation process…

Owing to the work that is needed because of finances, all of our directors are analysing all services about how to make them more efficient. It is clearly more palatable to make these changes through technology rather than losing staff or cutting back services.  Some of this will be inevitable unfortunately given the financial position most Local Government organisations find themselves in. However, reducing the impact on both can be achieved via technology. 


Firstly, we are looking to understand the challenge: the service offered and how it can be. There is a growing and great community in Local Government via the digital forums linked heavily to the Government Digital Service. We are a signatory of the Local Government Digital Declaration so our methodology is closely aligned to that: focusing on customers’ needs, making sure that we are designing with reuse in mind (common patterns and references), building open software (APIs etc.). The key thing is focusing on that customer need and asking ourselves whether it is the best it can be, casting a light onto processes which have been occurring for decades with new technology in mind. We use a lot of agile techniques as well, getting products quickly to test if something is going to work. Fail fast, give something a go instead of finding out at the end of a lengthy project that it doesn’t work. From a Local Government point of view, it is not terminology many would be comfortable with, but it is crucial for innovation. 


How do you find implementing change in Local Government?

There really is a groundswell of like-minded people passionate about technology in Local Government. The gap, certainly when I started two decades, between personal tech, company tech and public-sector tech was massive. Now it has all converged and there is very little difference between the three. People are doing more with personal tech then they ever have before, such as smart devices (Google Home, Alexa) and smartphones, of course. People bring that into the workspace and want the same sort of efficiency and tech in their work lives. As technology leaders in the public sector, it is how we do that with the potential security and financial issues. As I say, there is a growing group of technology evangelists in the public sector that are really pushing this agenda forward. It is a really exciting place to be at the moment. 


Like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, people want to interact with businesses the way they interact with friends. 

Exactly, you just have to look at the way Uber has disrupted the taxi world in a relatively short space of time and Amazon etc. All these things have happened in a not too distant past. The world moves very quickly now with something being unheard of to being a household name in a couple of years. It is amazing. As you say, there is a growing expectation that how you interact in your personal life should translate to public and private identities. 


What are you most excited about in tech? 

I’m a techie at heart and so get really excited about the tech and all the opportunities it brings. It comes with a little bit of frustration which can be a challenge at times. AI could have significant opportunities for Local Government. We are doing work around blockchain at the moment which is not something I thought I would say anytime soon. We are examining it alongside some carbon offsetting initiatives that the country is looking at. 


The reason I am excited to be in my role in the public sector is that these are leading technologies and I am talking about them and deciding on proof of concept rather than ten years behind the curb. We have to balance that with the pragmatic view that we are here to serve the public so every investment of time or money we make needs to help services run better and more efficiently. We can see how introducing AI to stop employees doing loads of checking between forms or looking at data quality could easily benefit the public. Blockchain is hard to separate from cryptocurrency in people’s minds but we could use the technology behind it to improve the security of transactions. There is a lot of new technology on the market, but I am most excited about - in terms of benefiting the public sector – AI and bots which will service it. 


What are you thinking of doing with blockchain? 

It is not something I was expecting to be on our radar anytime soon but there are interesting companies working with Local Government on blockchain – I know Worcestershire are doing great work on data analytics. They are looking at blockchain in terms of a private network on which they can share data. I think the transparency and security that blockchain brings is attractive to Local Governments for obvious reasons. We have to be pragmatic in ensuring that these are not just hobby projects for tech enthusiasts, asking ourselves what are the benefits for the public and the wider organisation? It is about tying those things together.  


How do you see councils of the future? 

It definitely feels like we are going through a seismic shift in terms of how Local Government is run and perhaps even financed. As an element of that there needs to be review of the traditional leadership styles you see in play at Local Governments and how technology impacts that. I think we will see a lot of partnerships. 

Technology breaks down a lot of geographic barriers all over the world. I think there will be a lot more council collaboration using technology for deeper collaboration between community groups and the council. Most areas you will see there is a place-based Facebook group where people have their own local community on Facebook so greater use of that. There will also be some more place-based regional working, breaking down the organisation barrier and looking at Coventry as a place – why people move to Coventry – bringing people together as a region rather than just a city.  We have to adapt quite quickly to survive as a sector because the funding just is not there. 


Do you have any recommendations or resources that feed into your digital transformation process? 

The Local Government Digital Slack channel is really useful point of contact and resource – there is a digital funding pipeline associated with that. The British Computer Society and the Society of IT Managers are both big in the Local Government space around innovation and digital transformation. One of the greatest sources of inspiration is Twitter, following the relevant tech start-ups and tech evangelists because there is no barrier now between the latest tech and using it in the public sector. PUBLIC, which was created by Daniel Korski, marry tech start-ups and public service, so I follow them. The great things about the internet is that it allows you to follow many people and connect with them in a way you would not have been able to in the past. Twitter can be a bit like Marmite but the amount of tech I have found through it is phenomenal.