Talking Transformation at Chelmsford City Council

This week, we caught up with Michael Sage, Head of Digital Transformation, Chelmsford City Council. Michael has over 16 years experience running digital transformation projects in the public and 3rd sector, so we want to know what the top challenges have been, which technology has reaped the most rewards plus much, much more.

How has being a consultant as well as a permanent member of staff benefited the local authorities you've worked for?


About sixteen years ago I was working for the Centre for the Environment. A couple of years into that role we had the first public sector spending review and our IT budget was cut by around 33% overnight. I was the IT Operations Manager at the time and I was keen to work with the Head of IT to achieve those savings without losing any of our staff from the department. That aim meant we started to find solutions in custom hardware and optimization, managing to achieve that cut without losing any staff.

Around the same time, someone I had previously worked for started their own business and asked if I wanted to consult for them as well. So, I started consulting, which is mainly focussed on small businesses. I think we have seen a lot of pace in the change that is happening in small businesses with the adoption of things like Office 365 and hosted emails. It was a good testing ground to try things in those small businesses, which we could then transfer to slower public sector organisations.

One of the things that had not been so noticeable in the public sector was the amount of capital that was just floating about. We had not had to worry for a number of years about how efficient we had to be. It really drove some of those more difficult conversations especially around things like recharging. Before, it might have been the IT department swallowed the costs of the project just because the organisation needed to deliver. When we started reflecting the true costs back, we just knew it needed to change.


What does your career within digital transformation look like?


When I started, everything was on the premises and you had bigger IT teams. I think as people and services came on board that affected things. Digital within local authorities in the late 1990s and early 2000s was about taking over processes and putting them on computers, which is perhaps where a lot of the problems we see today stem from. Lifting a process such as one from a planning department, which had a 15-day delay because so many documents had to go into the post and you were waiting for them to come back, wasn’t taking into account that you were now doing things via digital interchanges. One of the things we have done now is that we ask ourselves, “Is that the best process to offer for our residents and customers?”

I think there has been a shift in mindset as well, when we talk internally about council work now we talk about them as a business. That has been a really subtle culture shift which has been really beneficial.


What are the top challenges faced by UK councils? Have they stayed similar over the years or have they changed as the role of digital has evolved?


I think probably the biggest change that we have seen is around customer relations. The ability for residents to contact us when it is convenient for them rather than the traditional calling when it is convenient for us. We have also seen the massive rise of smartphones. When I started, I remember getting my first Blackberry and I thought the world had changed. Now I can go out in my local area, see some fly-tipping, take a photo of it, and send it to my local council no matter what time it was or where I was. Another shift is using live chat on our website allowing us to extend our opening hours by making sure our customer service staff can work from home.

Now we are beginning to see things like smart home as key. We are working across the whole of Essex on bringing an Alexa Skill to market that will allow any of our customers and residents to ask: “What is going on in Essex near me this weekend?” That is something that we certainly have not been able to do before.

We have obviously seen the rise of internet and people being able to share their opinion about us a lot more freely and making sure that we engage with them across all the channels. At the same time having this period of austerity means we are in a situation where we have to offer more for less. What we have realised is that you cannot offer more for less, but you can offer different for less. I think that is where digital really comes in, say when you are answering the phone the industry says that costs you £3.50 a minute, answering an email costs 7p an email and with live chat it is probably about 3p an interaction. When you start looking at those numbers, the efficiency you can get by investing in digital is really clear. Plus, you’ve got the benefit with live chat of being able to staff it 24/7 without a call centre.



Tell us more about the Alexa Skill, is that something you are looking at?


It is something we are looking at with Amazon as a pan-Essex group. We have a strong network of IT managers working in Essex; we focus hard on not trying to duplicate work that we are all doing. It is a great group and we are all honest with each other, there is a lot of sharing of information and skills. Data is crucial to all of this so making sure our data is one place so we can start to add some intelligence to it using things like chatbots, Alexa or whatever Amazon and Google happen to release next week. We want to make sure that Chelmsford Council is in a place where we aim to get things to market within a few weeks rather than a few months or years.


2016 saw Chelmsford move towards digital independence. Three years in, what has this experience been like and what does the programme rolling out look like? Also, how has this programme increased efficiencies, driven value and made your residents lives easier? 


In 2016, the Local Authority decided that we really wanted to take control of our data. We wanted to bring things back into a single customer record. We wanted to standardise our platforms, we wanted to get out of some of our expensive legacy contracts where we were essentially being charged to access our own data. We had also found that through organic growth we had ended up running nearly 2000 systems for various services. It made our customers’ lives difficult; it made our staff’s lives difficult. For example, if someone phoned up, our customer service team would have to be in one of twelve systems just to take that customer’s call and log it effectively. We found there was double data entry going on and there is a lot of error that creeps in when you have data like that. If someone rings up to change their address and you only update it in ten out of twelve systems then you have data inconsistency.

GDPR and data protection have been at the forefront recently with data sharing issues. We found that if someone wanted to do a “right to be forgotten” or an access request, it could take us weeks and weeks to make sure that data had gone or been communicated to them.

Therefore, we came up with our new digital strategy to focus on delivering three key platforms: a productivity platform (we settled on Office 365), a DRM platform (we settled on Dynamics 365) and an ERP platform, which we will be looking at over the next few months. What we want to do is to make sure that there is single record for our customers, a golden record, which will be held in our CRM system. In terms of efficiency, we do not think that we will save that much from an IT estate perspective. In terms of staff, what we have done is said to the authority, “Look we are putting together this platform for you, and how you choose to use the platform is up to you. It might be that you want to offer more services. You might say that now my staff can work from home.” Instead of getting rid of staff, you can have someone log on from 5am and work flexibly through the day. Then at say 10/11pm we can hand over full control to our chatbots or our AlexaSkills which can deal with common issues, like they have during the day. Customers can log something with customer support overnight which will be in the queue for staff to deal with the next morning. In terms of our staff, it is certainly something we are going to look at: whether we consolidate some of our buildings, it just gives us more options about how we want to work and how we want to engage with our residents.

We are looking at putting technology into some of our fleet, and giving customer service agents the tools to go out into the community and deal with residents directly if there are issues that need to be resolved like that. In terms of open democracy, it gives us a much easier route to publish minutes from meeting and committee dates. I think efficiency from the perspective of IT is about delivering more value for the same cost.


What does agility look like at Chelmsford?


At the moment we have just finished our move to Skype for Business and we are going to be rolling out new devices to the authority. Once that is completed in the summer of this year then the majority of our staff will be able to work from anywhere at any time.

You might have seen from my job history that I am based in Norwich and I commute down to Chelmsford. When I started at the Local Authority I realistically could only work from home once a week and that was working on reports, research and some of the strategy stuff. Since Christmas, I have moved up to working two days a week from home and I do not think my team notice any difference. If someone rings my desk phone it rings my PC or my mobile phone. I can conference call from anywhere. All our documents are now in Office 365 so we can collaborate. From that perspective, the platforms have really enabled businesses to do what they want. In terms of other services, many staff have opted for tablets and laptops which means they can work wherever they have an internet connection. They’ll be able to access the current systems as well as the new platforms. We will be rolling out Microsoft’s Always On technology, which means wherever they have got an internet connection they can connect to the office. In the long-term it will be wherever you have an internet browser you can connect to our key platforms.

I would say that the five-year plan is turning into a six-year plan so I think we are probably three years away from that digital independence, as opposed to two. However, I think that is a massive achievement in that amount of time, to unwrap that legacy. One of the things that is great for us is that the business is actually stopping and thinking about the services before moving them into the new platforms, which is great but has added a little bit of time to the overall programme.


How has the digital transformation process been received by people in job roles that are not that technical?


Right back at the beginning of the programme, we wanted to make sure that this did not become another one of those projects where IT is not working with the business. We knew that approach could not succeed, especially in the timescales that we had set ourselves. We have seen IT departments go in and say that they are changing the whole system. It just breeds that resentment towards the department. What we needed to make sure is that the whole authority community felt really engaged so the buzz-days we started right back at the start of the programme. We ran a few as introductions to Office 365, we were really careful to do them just before the project launched. We found that if you ran them too soon there was that initial excitement but by the time it was delivered people had forgotten or they had lost interest. We wanted to run them so once you had been to a buzz day you could go back to your desk and actually do it. The timing was key.

It was a little bit tricky in terms of the newsletter we still struggle to engage the business outside of the buzz days. It is something we are working really hard on, there is a lot of information to communicate. We do not want to run face-to-face meetings because they take up everyone’s time unnecessarily and there is no need for it. That is something we are continuing to look at. It was also key to make sure that the Council took some of the responsibility for the delivery and got really excited about it, really saw how it improved and related to their roles within the Local Authority as well.



At Chelmsford, you send out fortnightly newsletters and host monthly “buzz days” to involve the wider workforce in the digital transformation process. How has this been received?  


I think our management team has been really engaged from the beginning and that is really key in the delivery of something like this. I think they bought into it very early on and I think that has really helped the programme succeed. I think staff retention and salaries within the public sector are interesting as well. We have a good attrition rate, but one of the things that is key to an IT department in a Local Authority as well is keeping people fresh. I think it can be relatively easy to stagnate. One of the things we are doing a bit differently is that we know we are not the highest paying employer in the area so we are taking people on in junior roles and training people up, knowing that probably within three to five years they’ll probably jump on spend an extra twenty minutes on the train and double their salary in London. Yet, knowing that we have had that value from them for those two or three years where they are delivering for us and really enjoying delivering for us and learning a lot. That is one of the things we said when we set up the digital transformation is that we want to bring on and train those people planning for the fact that in two or three years once they’re fully trained they’ll leave. We balance that with the team that have been there for ten to fifteen years or more, who are still really to learn and have that institutional knowledge that you just cannot replace.


Are there any synergies with the challenges faced by South Norfolk and Chelmsford? 


They are very different authorities. South Norfolk is quite a rural district, quite affluent- it’s got an aging population. Chelmsford is obviously quite populated. I think in terms of the challenges, they are very similar. They are have that kind of complexity of legacy systems. There is also the fact that the residents want to engage in a different way. I think you have that in both of them you have a number of elderly residents who will probably only ever engage with you face-to-face or over the phone. I think there is technology there that can help; you have the intelligence within the IVR that is able to answer questions. I think it is important as a Local Authority to remember that elderly and vulnerable residents just want to talk to someone, so we need to make sure that when it is relevant there is someone there to pick up the phone.

In the past we have talked about channel shift. It is really important that we refocus that message slightly about contacting us through the appropriate channel. For some people viewing a website they want the answer as soon as possible so a chatbot is ideal. For other residents it might be that they want to tell their Alexa what events are on this weekend. For some people it will be that they just want to pick up the phone and talk to someone. I think that is probably something that we might have lost sight of a few years ago when we talked about channel shift, pushing people to websites, and social media. I think it is something that Local Authorities have come round to. It’s about the appropriate channels.


What element of technology in your experience has reaped the most rewards?


So many things have happened in the past few years let alone in the last sixteen years, it is hard to choose. I think the rise of Cloud has probably been the biggest one. It might have started with virtualisation but now Cloud and the ability to pull that data into one place and being able to run management reporting and pull out your FAQs is great. That kind of management interface has probably been the biggest and most beneficial. In terms of rewards, once we got all our data in that place, from a resident’s perspective it would be so easy to deal with us. From a staff member’s point of view, it would be easy to find the information that you need. I think with that security becomes a lot easier since rather than having to assign security to hundreds of systems you might only be looking at three or four.

That is brilliant and probably leads on to the next question, which is what I am most excited about: the ability to exploit, which is probably the wrong word but it is also the best one, that data. Then we can plug in chatbots and things like Alexa or the next big thing because we have our data and we know what we can do with it. We can use elements of AI and elements of natural language searching. That way we can pull out the most asked question that month, how many calls we had, which channel is serving our customers best as well as which channels do we need to look at because we’ve got a lot of people using them but they’re dropping off before they’ve completed their inquiries. I think that is the next exciting bit.


Do you have any advice for councils that are still feeling slightly overwhelmed by digital transformation?


From our perspective, what we have said is that as a Local Authority we want to be leading it. We do not want to be on the bleeding edge, which is a scary place for a Local Authority to be. One of the things we have done at Chelmsford is the first Friday afternoon of every month the Digital Services team can work on their own projects, though they need to have some kind of Local Authority benefit. It might be that someone might want to look at how to code in PHP, how to do something in AWS, or what happens if they evolve a certain platform further. I think the beginning of the journey is now a well-trodden path and there are lots of authorities out there who can give you advice and offer to come in and talk to you. We have had authorities from around the country come in and talk to us about our Office 365 deployment. We did ours quite quickly and aggressively. We took a “rip the plaster off” approach to Office 365 and it served us really well.

Don’t be afraid to try things, some of them will work really well for you, some of them won’t work so well but it all feeds into that learning and organisational knowledge. I think getting the management team and elected members on board early on is key as well. A bad reputation coming out of a management team can derail things before they have started but, providing you prove yourself in those baby steps, the Local Authority will become more trusting in your ability to make the bigger steps.




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


I think we will see councils pulling all their data back into central repositories. I mean the golden record has been a unicorn we have been chasing for years and years and years. I think that is becoming a reality now. I think that AI and machine learning are 100% dependent on the data that you have. I think that we can use those technologies in particular to identify vulnerable people earlier. Chatbots and voice technology and, to a certain degree, data capture, are key to us delivering a 24/7 service. I think that the chatbots of today are phenomenal even compared to where they were 15 months ago. In terms of voice technology, companies like Amazon have launched with AWS Connect, which is like Alexa but for your phone system. Language and language recognition will become better. At the moment you might have a resident phone you up and ask when their bin is being collected. Bin is not the language that the Council uses, we use refuse or waste then at the moment the call could potentially be routed incorrectly. Yet, as voice technology matures, IVRs will become more intelligent.

Data capture is interesting coming on the back of GDPR. It has really helped raise awareness of what we should be capturing and what we do with the data we have captured and how we delete it when it is no longer relevant. That has really helped digital transformation in a lot of ways as it has got rid of data that was no longer relevant to the Local Authority. I think in the coming years we will see automation really kicking in Local Authorities and the wider technology landscape.


What do you think councils of the future will look like in twenty years?


I think we will see wide-scale embedding of smart technologies. I think things as mundane as making sure that streetlights work intelligently so they only come on when there are people nearby. I think we might see some automation around waste collection. It might be that we have sensors in our bin so that we know when they need to be collected. By that point, who knows? Some of our bin lorries may be autonomous vehicles. They might say “actually we don’t need to go on that round this week because there are only three bins that need emptying and we send out a smaller vehicle”. We will continue to offer a service where people can call us and talk to us. Yet, I think we will see a shift where the vast majority of people will not want to talk to us anymore, they just want to know what they want to know and they will interact with us through the most appropriate channel, as we discussed earlier.

I think the future is really exciting, there are so many possibilities of where technology could take us while keeping the customer and the resident in control of what we are doing and how we are doing it.


Do you use smart home technology?


I have started using smart home technology at home. My landing light, which used to be on all night, now only comes on when someone opens a door onto the landing. It also only comes on a 20% brightness at night rather than blinding you if you need to go downstairs. I think the technology exists, it is just how we implement and monitor it. That kind of technology helps the wider community as well: it means the bulbs last longer and it means that we can potentially record street crime better and we can make sure that areas where there are high risk we can light really well and we know those lights are working.


What tool or app could you not live without?


I think it is probably quite old school, but for me email is still king. In terms of tools and apps I love at the moment, it would have to be Power BI. It uses natural language so if I forget what the title of a document or I need to put an email in I can use it to search all my OneDrive, SharePoint and email and pull that back for me. That again relates back to what we were talking about concerning being able to manage your own data.