Hi Alison, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at Wigan & Bolton Councils?
I’m Alison Hughes the Assistant Director responsible for the ICT Strategic Partnership at Wigan & Bolton Councils. That is a strategic relationship with our IT provider Agilisys, but it spans across Bolton Council, Wigan Council, and inspiring healthy lifestyles. We used to also include a housing trust but that’s been brought back in-house now. So, I act as the strategic client on behalf of all of those partners and I also manage some internal ICT delivery across those partners.
It’s a very challenging role. I think for me, my job is to make sure that we can maximise the opportunities for sharing resources, for moving change forward at a pace. We’ve got lots of things that probably would not be affordable in the public sector if we didn’t do them in a partnership way. We have things like a 24/7 service desk which I know can be extremely expensive if you run that as a single organisation. We can move forward on changes at a greater pace because we can share resources and learnings and only do things once on behalf of all the partners.
But for me, it’s about making sure that I manage all those opportunities and manage the strategic technology roadmap with our partners, whilst respecting that each individual organisation has got its own identity and its own specific priorities. So, it is quite an unusual role.
You must be constantly inspired by all of the different areas of your role?
I think it’s interesting because it’s very much about listening to customers, and I think my job is to make sure that I’m really in tune and I really listen to those organisations that I work for. My salary is paid by each of those organisations in different component parts, so that in itself is quite unusual. And there are five of us in a client team who are paid in that way. So we are very specifically people who work for the strategic partnership element of it and then each partner has their own day-to-day service delivery team, which is things like IT business partners.
We’ve got some staff who look after applications, people who are transformation programme managers, and they’re looking after the specific business requirements in relation to IT or in relation to business change. We look after all of the big technology stuff like what’s our strategy around agile working? What is the technology that’s going to support us on that journey? Cybersecurity and how do we deal with those challenges collectively? What are the things that are going to help take us in the right direction going forward? So, it’s very much a balancing act and I would say that in my role, the most important thing is about listening and communicating really well because you’re bearing in mind just how many people you’re trying to represent in terms of your role.
The contract itself is very different from a traditional outsourcing contract, it’s unique and people find that quite interesting because I think traditional outsourcing contracts were very much about having a list of requirements - you go to the market and the market provides specific technologies and you decide which one provides the technologies you like and you go with that provider.
Our relationship is a very outcome-based contract in that we wanted to develop a proper partnership and we wanted to be able to say to our provider these are the outcomes that we’re seeking, you go away and as long as the solutions you recommend meet our requirements in terms of quality and delivery of those outcomes, we’re happy for you to take the lead role in that. That changes the relationship that you have with your provider really because it’s always about focusing on the outcomes that you want from the technology which means that you can always revisit those technologies in terms of have our outcomes changed. Are they delivering on the things that are really important to us as an organisation?
Congratulations on being awarded #2 Female Gov Tech Leaders 2018 and Top 30 Women In Tech in Manchester!
Thank you! I must have an awful lot of people in my camp and I’m very, very grateful to those people. I was honoured to be given that because I just think I’m an ordinary person doing my job as best I can every day. So, thank you. I was delighted.
I think it was an amazing honour to be named alongside the other top 29, some of whom I know personally and are absolutely fantastic women doing an amazing job every day, but I think we’re all different. One of my passions is encouraging more women to get involved in tech. I’m absolutely passionate about it and that’s why I try and put myself forward with things like this.
The tech industry is an absolutely fantastic place to work if you’re a women because there’s so many different jobs and roles and it offers so much flexibility - you can very much do a lot of the roles around your lifestyle. I think a lot of women see the tech industry in a very traditional way in that it’s all about developers or it’s all about infrastructure people and they don’t realise that there’s so many other roles that really, really are interesting and I think they can bring something to those roles.
The tech industry is an absolutely fantastic place to work if you’re a woman because there are so many different jobs and roles and it offers so much flexibility - you can very much do a lot of the roles around your lifestyle.
That’s the main reason why I allow myself to be put forward for these type of things because I would like to think that somebody listening to me thinks you know what? She sounds dead normal and I could maybe have a go at that. Come and join me, come and talk to me because I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for you out there.
In 2013, Wigan & Bolton outsourced an IT contract for £47 million which saw 46 staff transfer over to the private sector. What did that process look like? And did you save the £7 million as projected?
In terms of the context in which that took place, Bolton Council was their third generation outsourcing and they were going out to market. They asked if there was anyone out there who’d be interested in doing this with us.
My background is not IT at all, my background was administration and then I’d worked in adult social care. I’d done a bit of systems and performance type stuff and I came to Wigan as Head Of Organisational Development. It was because I really fancied a change and I wanted to do something different. I’d only been there a short period of time and the Head Of IT announced that he was leaving and suggested that it’d be really good if you could go and do some work with IT. He though they’d benefit from somebody who was focused on the business and thinking about business change and helping them focus not just on the technology but on the change management side of it. So anyway, I agreed to do that for a short period of time and 11 years later I’m still here.
Now, I’ve extended my reach across a whole range of other partners. When I initially went into the service, I recognised that the organisation was changing at a really fast pace and IT was struggling to keep up with that pace. So, I think for me, we needed to make some investment in the infrastructure. We didn’t necessarily have the knowledge and skills to enable us to move the organisation forward at a pace. So, I said okay, shall I go and have a look and see what Bolton are doing and whether there’s any elements in that that can help us? The rest is history.
We moved along the process. We decided to work together. We formed a relationship that worked okay. We focused on our strategic outcomes. We focused on what we wanted from the contract and we were aligned in terms of that. We worked through a delivery model. Obviously, it was a £47 million contract over seven years across all of the partners and it required us to TUPE staff from Bolton in terms of their existing provider into the new provider and from Wigan we TUPE transferred quite a few of the staff into the new provider. We have delivered the projected savings plus more. There’s lots of other benefits that we’ve delivered in terms of added value, particularly around the number of apprenticeships that we’ve taken on. That’s really important, particularly in terms of promoting young people and talent management for the future. So, that’s been a really good outcome. We try to encourage and offer as many work placements and apprenticeships as we possibly can through our partners. And that’s something, I think, is very important to both the councils and our strategic partners.
I think it has been a successful partnership. We’ve learned a great deal. It’s been a partnership and a relationship that’s grown over time. I think it must be successful - Wigan Council won LGC Digital Council Of The Year 2016. They won Digital Leaders, Digital Council Of The Year 2016 and this year Wigan Council won LGC Council Of The Year. So, I think we must be doing something right. It must be working.
Wigan Council was the third hardest hit council in the country in terms of the impact of austerity and government funding.
We’ve been on a journey as organisations and we’re very much focused on digital. I think Wigan Council was the third hardest hit council in the country in terms of the impact of austerity and government funding. We really wanted digital to be part of our solution and to embrace that in a cultural way in the organisation. It’s been a big part of how we manage to successfully deliver on our savings and efficiencies. And it’s very much embedded in the DNA of our staff now. We’ve done a lot of work around behaviours, encouraging people to be accountable, to be brave, to think differently and do all of those things. A big part of that is IT and how we deliver IT.
We really wanted digital to be part of our solution and to embrace that in a cultural way.
Some of the things I’m most proud of is how fantastically our staff have embraced agile working and the impact that’s had on an organisation. One of the outcomes we set at the beginning of the contract was we want a really good model for agility, that flexes and grows with the organisation, that enable us to use our buildings more flexibly. That enables us to move and deliver services at the front line with our customers and really change the way we work as an organisation.
We’re really delivering on that agenda in terms of some of the technology we’ve implemented. A lovely example recently was when we had a very unexpected incident in our town hall and something or somebody, who shall remain nameless, cut the network link. We had no phones and no network into the town hall and our staff just got on with it. They just got up and moved to other locations or they went home and the disruption to the business was probably minimal in terms of people just being able to work flexibly and move themselves to another location. That for me, was a real testament to how far we’ve come in terms of culture and in terms of making use of the technology available to us.
This contract comes to an end next year. What are your plans? And how do you see automation, AI and chatbot technology freeing your staff?
We’ve recently made the decision to extend our contract for a further two years plus. It’s working really well and I think one of the main drivers for doing that is the changing face of public service really. What we’ve seen over the last 18 months, 2 years, is a very different model of public service emerging. Those silo based individual agencies that were working from the NHS, police, some of the partners that we work with, were very much about individual service models and we’ve done a lot of work around integrating them and redesigning the organisation.
I think we’re not completely clear about what that model is going to look like because we’re beginning to create different organisations as delivery mechanisms for those services. So, I think we felt that we needed to have a little bit more time before we went back to the market and said this is what we think we’re going to look like and this is what the shape of demand to the market is going to be. We hope in 18 months’ time we’ll have a bit more of a picture about what that looks like and that will be a better time to go back to the market really.
What would you say are Wigan and Bolton Council’s top challenges?
The biggest challenge that we face at the moment is customer expectations. We’ve still all got a lot to do and I think the pace of change is so rapid in terms of consumer IT and the way our public live their lives. We’ve still got quite a lot to do in terms of some areas of our service still need to move and become a bit more digital. That’s why some of the projects we’ve got with robotics and AI are really important because we’ve started to introduce that to further improve some of the processes that we’ve got working quite well online, but we think there’s more scope and more capacity to do them in a more effective way. So, that’s got to be part of our journey going forward, customer expectations and our ability to respond to those expectations.
The biggest challenge that we face at the moment is customer expectations.
We live in an increasingly 24/7 world where the lines between work and home, kind of, blur. People want to do business when it suits them in a way that suits them. For us in public service, that’s a challenge in terms of how we meet those expectations and how we deliver those services. That’s where robotics can have a great role to play because in our older models, people might have been able to enter information online out of hours, but then that might have to wait until standard office hours before anyone processes it. The more we can do automatic processing of those requests out of hours, the more we can meet the customer’s expectations.
The other challenge for us is the growth in Internet Of Things (IOT) and consumer technology using Internet Of Things. We’ve already got residents who are being supported to live at home using things like Amazon Alexa, using systems that integrate and link with sensors in their home that feed data back to some of our professionals. How do we marry all of that up with some of our requirements around technology in a corporate environment? How do we do that safely and securely and make use of this technology? Also, how do we ensure that we manage resident data safely and that it is done in a way that doesn’t cause problems for us down the line? That is becoming increasingly a feature of the conversations that we have every day.
Absolutely. It’s about being where your constituents are. We were speaking to Monmouth County Council a couple of weeks ago about this on The Botcast and they had a very similar message. We started talking about how voice technology can play an important role with vulnerable members of society. Being able to voice activate a device gives people that independence to stay in their homes for longer and to keep that communication going.
Yes! We’ve had some marvellous examples of that. There’s a woman with Multiple Sclerosis. Her mobility was becoming more and more challenging for her and he was potentially in a place where she would have to move out of her home into a more formal residential setting, which wasn’t what she wanted. By using voice activated technology like Alexa and linking that to some of the traditional call support mechanisms, meant that this was still accessible to her and she could still use it without being able to get to a button to push it or get to a phone to call it. It has helped her to remain in her own home longer. So, it’s out there, it’s happening. That was a really good outcome for her from an investment in relatively low-cost technology and thinking about it and how do you do it differently. I think there’s definitely a role to play, particularly with some of our more vulnerable residents.
Your partnership stores data of over, sort of, 600,000 citizens. How do you use that data to feed into your decision making and better engage with your constituents?
There’s a lot more we could do with this, to be honest. I think we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, if you like. We’ve got some stuff that we’re already doing which is work around risk stratification which is about looking at our data and trying to focus service delivery around particular groups of people who are at risk of coming into the more complex service delivery components. So, there’s a bit around that.
We’ve got a bit around data that we use to predict people who are at risk of coming into financial difficulty that looks at all of our financial transactions with that individual, so that we can potentially intervene and offer support at an early stage and prevent it becoming a non-payment or a civil issue around that. That’s particularly important where you’ve got small businesses who might be struggling in the borough, and we can go in and offer support when we look at some of the predictive data that we’ve got that might indicate that there’s a potential issue arising.
We’ve done quite a bit of work around open data and making sure that we push out data to our residents as much as we can because we’ve already had some really good examples of people asking us for particular data sets with a view to developing or marketing something that may be of benefit to our residents in the borough. We know there’s some real advantages around that. We’ve done quite a bit around bringing data together in shared views with some of our partners to get a more holistic view of residents and therefore make better informed decisions about that resident. SWe’ve got some really good and strong examples of where we’ve done that.
Obviously, some of the robotics work that we’re in, we’ve got in training at the moment, that will be making better use of that data hopefully to transform the processes and make things a bit better for our residents. Where I think we need to do more work is around the predictive stuff so that we can better tailor services in line with what residents are interested in. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that in the public sector and that’s something we could definitely do more of.
If you look at some of the key online retailers, who I won’t name, they’re really, really good at tailoring content to you as a customer or to what they know about you. It frightens me to death when I see some of the things that appear on my timeline on social media because I think how do you know that about me? It’s becoming such a big part of our world and I don’t think in public service we do enough around understanding our customers and then tailoring some of the content that we send to them. I think that’s particularly important around the public health agenda and the preventative agenda where we’ve got people who we could potentially target for things to improve their lifestyle or things that might be of interest to them that’ll improve the quality of their life. There’s loads more we can do around that and I think there’s some really important lessons to be learned from the private sector around that.
Quite a bit we do, but there are some challenges because the cyber security arena is becoming increasingly challenging for us in the public sector in that the risks are increasing. We’re having to put more resources into that area. And I think for us, because we’re asking residents to interact with us digitally and asking them to entrust us with their data, some of whom are the most vulnerable and, kind of, at risk people in society, then we have to have a model that does everything that it can to protect their data. That’s a challenge for us in terms of how we use that data and how we manage it because there’s so many opportunities, but it’s got to be done in the context of that challenging landscape.
Yes! There’s so much scope. What we do is we build chatbots and voice assistants and the remarketing and retargeting possibilities within a chatbot alone are incredible. Most people think that chatbots are just for FAQ’s and that kind of thing, but the analytical backend of it is huge. By using sentiment analysis, trigger words and past purchase history - like you were talking about e-commerce, you can really target your market. That can be really beneficial if you translate it into the public sector and target services for your constituents and offer them solutions or alert them of days they might be interested in within the community that are super relevant to them. Obviously, that holds so much opportunity but yes, the data capture and security side if things is paramount, especially with everything that’s happened this year with Facebook. It’s on people’s minds. It’s that balance, I think.
I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said around chatbots. I mean, our contact centre staff do use web chat as well as part of it and they use analytic tools for telling when someone is struggling with the transaction. When they’ve been lingering around a place for a set period of time and it does that pop up and offers that support around that. That’s been really good for us because it’s enabled people to multi-serve and deal with calls and web chats at the same time, which is obviously better for our customers.
It’s also given us some fantastic insight information about how people are using our website, what they’re doing, what they’re interested in and we could do a lot more than we have done around helping to promote some of the things that are really important to us. We have something in Wigan called the Wigan Deal which is very much about a new relationship with our residents, it’s very asset and strengths based and it’s been very much our response to austerity. We’ve said to residents if you do the following things such as transact with us online or if you recycle more, that will help us to keep council tax down.
A big element of that is people doing things within their own community, volunteering, engaging in the community, being part of the community. There are so many opportunities to promote this and get people involved with this as part of when they’re doing their business with us. We could do a lot more with some of the tools that you’ve talked about in terms of knowing who these people are and what they’re doing and how they might help us.
The other thing that we’ve done, we've done something called Community Book. It’s a very unusual thing in that normally when authorities create, if you like, libraries of community services or things that, they might want to recommend to people as part of helping them with issues, we’ve managed that and we’ve wanted to control it. Because in that way then, we can make sure that there’s nothing on there that might be inappropriate content or whatever. In the past, that’s become seen as a local authority thing rather than a community thing. We developed our community, our register, our local library of activities. We handed that over to the community sector to develop and it’s very much owned by them. They’re the ones who manage the content and the look and feel of that. We’re an enabler rather than a direct provider of it. But in terms of pushing people and promoting that, there’s so much more we could do through some of those analytic tools that would help us improve and develop the content within that and make it much more relevant to the people who are using that tool. I think there are huge opportunities around that.
As assistant director of ICT Strategic Partnerships, what digital strategies do you see benefiting councils in the future and what technologies are you most excited about?
I’ve spoken a little bit about the work that we’re doing around robotics and I think that’s really interesting. We did a proof of concept last year and the outputs from that were really interesting. They were so positive that it enabled us to stand up a business case to set a member of staff specifically to work on the projects that we’d identified over the next 12 months - we estimated a return on investment in the first year of around £18,000. That would be the first year when we’d invested in this individual and then that would continue to deliver going forward.
This was from the first pilot. It was probably about £70k, I think, in the first year. So, £70k going forward is quite a lot and we’ve got about six or seven different projects that we’re going to do this year. So, some fantastic opportunities around that. More importantly though, not just about the financial savings, about the fact that it will make those transactions that are relatively simple more effective. I think that’s about good customer service and about meeting customer expectations quickly. That makes me quite excited and it will also mean that for those people who do require a more customised or have got a more complex requirement, we’ll be able to spend more time with those customers. So, that makes me happy.
I think Internet Of Things (IOT) will grow and I think we will see more and more people supported at home using technology, and that makes me really excited because that’s a growing market and there’s some amazing things happen.
So for me, I think those are the two big things that we’re excited about at the moment.
Digital transformation is a buzz phrase in the public sector right now. Can you tell us about Wigan and Bolton Council’s digital transformation strategy?
Our councils are both in different places around that and that recognises that each borough has its own unique identity, and lends you to prioritise things slightly differently depending on what your current issues are. Both boroughs are very much focused on three areas in terms of their digital transformation strategies.
Bolton is in its first instance of the strategy and Wigan is currently reflecting on its existing strategy and developing its next iteration of that. I think there’s a strong focus on the place itself. So, what are our responsibilities around the place, which is very much about connectivity, making sure that we maximise the opportunities to increase connectivity in the borough. Access to technology for our residents, so that’s about - what does 5G mean to us? How can we encourage investment in the borough? How can we make sure that we develop good high-quality broadband as a utility when we do housing development? When we build business locations in the borough? So, there’s a big strand around that.
Then, there's how do we support small to medium enterprises in the borough to grow and become more digital and build their presence using digital? And also, how do we encourage innovation hubs and digital businesses to base themselves in our boroughs? So, I think that’s a common thread in terms of digital transformation across both organisations and that won’t be unfamiliar to most public sector organisations in terms of our role as enabler. There’s loads of partners who can help us with that. Lloyds Bank do things, there’s loads of private sector partners who will help and support people with that. So, that’s a big part of our digital vision for the future.
I think that’s a common thread in terms of digital transformation across both organisations and that won’t be unfamiliar to most public sector organisations in terms of our role as enabler.
The second element is about our people. So, how do we make sure our residents aren’t left behind in terms of this digital thing that’s taking place across the world? We’ve done loads of work to skill up our residents to increase their access to facilities where they can use the internet and do the things that they need to do. We know if we’re going to be pushing our transactions online and pushing things to be done digitally, that then we have to support some of our more vulnerable residents in being able to go on that journey with us. So, we’ve done a lot of work around that and that’s a big part of our strategy. We need to encourage our residents because we know that those residents who become internet enabled and digitally active for the first time are usually around £1,000 a year better off than they were before because of all the access to the things such as deal sites and being able to source the best provider of goods and save money in that way. So, we know all those things, that is a real incentive for our politicians to maximise people’s income and make them better off.
We know as well that if we up-skill those residents through making sure there’s lots of apprentice opportunities with digital and technology, that these are key growth areas. We’re part of Greater Manchester - there’s ten authorities and the Mayor of Greater Manchester has been really vocal in his aspirations to make Greater Manchester one of the best digital places in the UK. So, we know on the back of that there’s going to be loads of opportunities and we need to make sure our residents are up for that and can be part of that whole revolution that’s taking place.
Those residents who become internet enabled and digitally active for the first time are usually around £1,000 a year better off than they were before.
We’ve accessed things like the IDA Awards which is free online training for residents, and our staff are also taking part in this. It’s a bit like the Duke of Edinburgh scheme and you get a bronze, silver and gold award and it’s all about improving your digital skills. Making sure that we’re promoting initiatives like that and our residents are given the opportunity and also encouraging our staff.
The third element is obviously about us as organisations and making sure that we’re fit for purpose, that we’re modern organisations that work in a modern way, that our staff think digital, that we’re keeping pace with the rest of the world, that we’re reviewing our processes, that we’re on a constant change kerb. I think they’re the three component parts to both councils’ digital strategy and where we know we’ve got to go next.
How do you see AI, machine learning, chatbots, data capture - everything we’ve talked about, transforming councils across the UK? What will councils of the future look like?
We’ve touched on this a bit in terms of the role it will play and you can see that starting to play out particularly around robotics and machine learning. I think the data capture side is really interesting, a key element of that going forward is a bit about how much residents get to contribute to and control their own data. One of the issues we have around trust in the public service is that people know that tools like Facebook and Instagram get hacked, but they still carry on using them. In the main, a lot of that is because they feel that they’ve still got some choice about using them and that they control privacy and that they can control who shares what in terms of the information that they put into Facebook. So, although they know there are holes and although they know things go wrong with that data, because they’ve got some elements of control, they’re still willing to engage with and use those tools. We need to get to the same place in the public sector.
We need to do more with our residents to engage them in owning and managing the data that we use on their behalf, I think that will help build the trust. How we do that? I don’t know whether it’s through citizen/resident portals and resident indexes of data. I think that is something that we will definitely have to think about more in the future.
We need to do more with our residents to engage them in owning and managing the data that we use on their behalf.
The other element of it is that we need to think about the pace of change and how we keep moving in the same direction? How do we keep pace with the consumerisation of ICT and how our residents live their lives? I think that is going to become increasingly important.
In terms of what the council of the future will look like, I think I’ve touched a bit on that, in that I think we’ll be moving away from traditional silo based models of delivery. We’re already starting to see councils as enablers and there is some smaller range of services that we continue to provide, but I think increasingly the transactional side will be all dealt with online. There will be more customer portals that bring together services and manage interactions and track interactions across more than one organisation rather than just being about that organisation. I think health is the biggest example of that. What are the things that make sense to citizens and what would they want to track and follow more online?
A really good example is the work that’s going on nationally around the red book, and people traditionally when they gave birth to a baby being given a red book and then the red book is used to record your immunisations. The digitising of that red book in the UK, that’s starting to be the basis of a citizen-controlled record that travels with you through your life. Then it moves on to the school nurse element of the record and then it takes you through education, secondary education, university education. It might direct you into setting yourself up to get a driving licence, setting yourself up to get a passport. And I think increasingly all of those elements of central and local government that make up that cradle to the grave public service interaction will become more streamlined and more joined up than they are now. I think that is something really exciting that we should all be thinking about and we should have in our mindset when we’re looking to the future.
What about voice technology? Where do you see that playing a part?
There are some real opportunities with voice. We use voice technology for some of our contact centre already. We use voice technology for people to contact other people in the office, being able to ask for it rather than have to look up numbers. That’s been embedded for some time. There’s also the example with Alexa that we’ve talked about and how that can make a difference to residents. There are real opportunities, particularly around some of the online services to do more of that and engage with our citizens in that way.
One of the other opportunities that I just wanted to touch on that I think will be really interesting going forward, is how technology helps us to engage better with our citizens and what does citizen engagement look like going forward for the future? In the public service sector we’ve not been as good historically with engaging effectively with residents. In some instances it’s been quite tokenistic and I think there would be some real opportunities to engage and bring citizens into the service design process and make them part of it in a real dynamic way that we need to be building into our base model of service design going forward.
What tool or apps could you simply not live without?
That’s really easy! Everyone in my family, every one of my friends, could answer this for me. It’s got to be my smartphone. I do everything on my smartphone. And because I’m a non-driver, which is really unusual in this world that we live in, I couldn’t live without my travel apps. I travel all over the place and everything is done using public transport, using travel apps, and then when I get off gransport, wherever I am, I Google map it and off I go. It’s just made me point and go rather than those old-fashioned days when I used to have to print out all my directions before I went anywhere. It’s transformed the way I live my life and I couldn’t imagine life without my smartphone. I think I’d rather lose my husband than my smartphone, but please don’t tell him that!
It’s really taken so much stress out of life in terms of real time travel information and then just being able to find where you need to go when you get off no matter where you are in the country. I think it’s amazing!