Karen, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming Digital Transformation Manager at West Lothian Council?
Some people find it quite strange that my degree is actually in hotel and catering administration. I spent quite a lot of years after graduating working in hotels and retail. What that did for me was really hone my customer service skills and really get to understand people. Through a whole range of somewhat bizarre circumstances, I found myself back in the late nineties working with Dumfries and Galloway Council with their housing service. My role was supporting tenants and doing engagement with tenants. That was my first foray into local government, though I had briefly done a stint with the NHS on a designated drivers’ scheme, trying to get people not to drink and drive which was very interesting! Working for Dumfries and Galloway Council was very interesting and I quickly moved into corporate communications where I was Media Officer, then community planning which was a more policy driven role then I did some regeneration work. Back in 2008 I moved up to West Lothian Council as their Community Planning Manager. My focus, I suppose, in all my roles has always been about working with customers and communities to improve services and directly meet their needs. I’ve had a mix of strategic and operational roles, which I’ve found has really helped with my new role. Back in 2017, I was seconded from the customer service manager job to the digital transformation manager role. What that is really about is helping services across the Council embrace new technologies, try to make better use of digital services and putting customers at the heart of any service changes. I’m responsible for implementing the digital transformation strategy for the Council as well as savings target of £600,000 from a digital perspective.
How do you plan to make those savings?
In the scheme of things, we are trying to save 65 million, so it is small in the scheme of things though obviously a large amount. The savings are around trying to change the way we do things and bring in technology. We still have services that use a large amount of paper. We still have some challenges about providing staff with the right kit where departments do not always talk with one another. We are also looking at automation where we have repeat processes like dealing with invoices, in order to shorten the time it takes. We want to use video-conferencing more to avoid people travelling around West Lothian to meetings. There is nothing ground-breaking in what we want to do but from a public sector point of view we are behind the curve in terms of what our private sector colleagues are doing on a day-to-day basis.
Tell me more about your Digital Champions Programme programme…
One of our themes is developing the digital skills of both staff and customers. Last Autumn we undertook a digital skills audit of our staff because we knew that we needed to be able to assess where they are with their skills so we could put in the right measures to support them. We used a question set that has been developed by the Scottish councils for use in voluntary organisations. The reason we did that was so that we could benchmark against other councils and organisations in Scotland to see how we were doing. We had over 1400 responses, which has allowed us to collate responses at a service level. As part of that audit, one of the questions we asked was: would people volunteer as a digital champion to help and support their colleagues with digital skills? Initially we had over a hundred people volunteer, but that has now reduced to 55 for a variety of reasons. We have 55, who are very committed and we have started the process with them. We have met twice as a complete group, first we discussed what their job as a digital champion looked like. We agreed what they would and would not do, as they wanted to be clear about their role and that they were not just a second IT desk. This is more about supporting people. We also felt that we wanted to be able to support the champions so we joined Digital Unite, which gives us access to online support and learning. We have also directed the champions to other resources like the IDEA, which have ideas about how to support the learners. Digital Unite champions programme has a specific focus around supporting customers. However, they have recognised that there are slightly different issues if you are a champion supporting other colleagues, so they are busy creating some online resources to support staff as champions. We are also working with our college who are going to provide coaching skills to our staff, so we want the champions to get something out the programme. We are working to make sure we put programmes and support for their needs.
You recently carried out a survey which found that respondents felt unsure about two key areas: how to access information online and how to stay safe online. How do you plan on overcoming these barriers?
The champions I was just talking about are going to be key to the staff enhancing their digital skills and we are busy developing some courses and material around those topics. We are using our e-learning platform to publish them on. I was given the draft this week and it is looking really positive. We are reusing a lot of online content from the likes of the National Cyber Security centre, so we are not starting from scratch, we are just trying to hone and develop it so it meets our needs. I’m also working with our adult learning team and relevant partners such as Citizens Advice, Social Landlords and the DWP to plan and share courses across West Lothian to focus on customers. We will utilise areas, like libraries, with public access wifi and computers, helping customers get online. Our schools are also playing a part by teaching our young people the relevant digital skills. I’m constantly surprised by how tech-savvy the young people are. For instance, we have primary school students, aged 7-8, coding games and they are teaching the teachers! We also some senior school pupils who are Turing testers and National Cyber Security Scotland award-winners. They’ve created online resources for young people, and others, to stay safe online. In addition, our community high schools are offering courses to parents to help with their digital skills. Within our housing service, which has got very good links to tenants they’re offering help and support via chat sessions and in-person meetings. Our tenants as well as staff have a crucial role giving input on improvements to services like void housing procedures and asbestos checks. We have recently just revamped our whole application process with the help of our tenants and staff. We also use our customers to act as inspectors of our services. We give them access to senior officials and back office. They come in and have a look at our services with a view to improving them and these citizen-led inspectors are a vital part of our overall improvement agenda. There are many elements to it and it is quite a big jigsaw!
You store data of 175,000 constituents, how are you using this data to feed into your decision making and better engage with your constituents?
This area is one of the biggest challenges we have. At the moment we have 250 systems in the Council and, for the most part, they do not talk to each other. This means our staff constantly have to do double data entry or cut and paste from one system to another. That ultimately leads to errors being made; it is frustrating for staff and inefficient for customers. It also makes a challenge to create true end-to-end self-service a reality for our customers. We have made some good progress in this regard, just this week we have launched our parents’ portal in a pilot school clusters. If all goes well, we will roll that out to all schools by the end of term. In the first week we have had 300 parents sign up, which is promising. Our parents’ portal will allow parents to update information, give consent for trips and photos, pay for meals and book parents’ evenings, among many other things. We know from the engagement we have done with our customers via our “Transforming our Council” plan that they want to access information easily, which is why we are revamping our website. They want to make service requests and change details without phoning us or coming into an office. We also know that there are some customers, which still require face-to-face support or want to speak someone and we want to provide those services. Yet, for the vast majority of customers they want to be able to use the technology as they do in other parts of their lives. It is a big part of my job to make this a reality but it is a struggle.
You have four key outcomes in your digital transformation plan: engaging customers to use digital channels, enabling customers and staff to thrive in the digital age, digital service design and the digital workplace. You have already touched on the skills aspect but could you go into more detail about the others?
Our digital customers theme is about enabling our customers to engage with the Council in the ways that they want, always with the presumption of digital first. We have made efforts over the last year to increase the amount of self-service customers can do on the website. Last October, we launched “My West Lothian”, which is our customer portal. We used the National Scottish My Account functionality and we have over 28,000 customers registered. The revamp of our website comes under this theme as does the integration of our systems and the use of self-service, in this regard we have recently purchased a new HR and payroll system, which when it is implemented will allow our managers and staff to self-serve for a wide range of HR-related functions. This includes accessing payslips, putting in overtime claims, recording and tracking sickness absence and all the tasks related to recruitment processes. That is going to make a huge difference for our staff. The digital service design theme is around ensuring solid foundations on which we build our digital services. We have agreed a Council-wide approach on using the same address database across systems and we are piloting the use of a sign-on for staff so they can access all systems by signing onto one, instead of what happens now with multiple log-ins, which is also a security nightmare. We are also investigating the types of evidence we ask for when customers are applying for services to see if we can use electronic evidence or reuse information we already hold. We are working with the Scottish government on a national digital identity solution. This theme also requires us to map all our business processes, so we can redesign them using digital first. We have mapped processes across our housing service, central admin, procurement and licensing but there is still loads to do. We are about to advertise for a service designer to come and work with us to have another perspective, which I am excited about. The final theme is about making the workplace as digital as possible. The activities within this theme include changing the way we deliver Wi-Fi in our buildings to make it easier for people. We also want to increase the use of mobile technology for our staff who are out and about in our communities. We already have building services and waste services using mobile technology to help them do their jobs. Yet, there is more we can do by expanding this technology to housing officers and social workers to make their jobs more efficient and reduce the time that is wasted travelling between appointments and the office. We have some technical and cultural challenges to overcome to make this happen. We have already undertaken significant work to map our existing systems in order to reduce these systems overtime and make more use of the core systems we have. We are also improving our e-learning platform and offering staff the support they need to do their jobs in a way that is easily accessible. The final activity within this theme is working with and supporting the digital partnership within Scotland, which all 32 local authorities signed up to.
How do you plan to serve the more vulnerable members of society using technology?
The use of technology in people’s home is now well embedded and it has been for a long-time. We have been successful in encouraging people to stay at home utilising the range of technologies available. Yet, as the technology is improving, we need to be able to harness to prevent people from going into hospital or long-term care. The challenge with all of this will be the change from analogue to digital technology that is happening across the country and making sure what we put in place does not mean customers fall through the cracks as changeovers happen. There is another challenge around the unprecedented choice that is now available to customers, which can be confusing, so we have make sure we offer the right support and help to enable them to make the right choices. We have hit a bit of crossroads and we need to refocus because of the technological changes being made on a national level around the network and then the suppliers changing the types of equipment they are producing. All of that is happening together so it is a confusing landscape for our customers, never mind ourselves and we need to help them through that. It is absolutely a big focus of our digital stratagem.
How do you plan to increase the numbers of residents using the 'MyWestLothian' account?
We began this a few years ago now and we started to use the national “My Account” credentials for our online payments for school meals. This was successful and we have about 13,000 parents who signed up and used it on a regular basis. It allows them to load up a card or pay upfront, if it is a secondary school, then the pupils can just go a spend it in the canteens or with the primary school pupils they pre-order their meals. We have had an unforeseen benefit of that is that we have reduced the amount of waste in our school kitchens because they are not producing meals that no one is going to eat. Having had success with that, we started to use it to log on to our public access Wi-Fi, which did not work quite so well and we have since removed that step in the process. We saw an increase in the uptake of the use of the Wi-Fi when we did that! Last year, we launched MyWestLothian, which is our single customer portal, giving access to requests for services, paying, changing details and reporting issues as well as quite importantly our bin calendars. We now have 28,000 people registered but the way we want to increase it is by offering more services through this portal. As I said, we launched the parents’ portal last week; we launched the revenue portal at the beginning of the year and saw an immediate positive impact. The more we can make it easier for people to transact with the Council, the more they will use the single My Account identifier.
West Lothian along with 31 other Scottish Local Authorities have contributed to setting up the Local Government Digital Partnership. Designed to aid collaboration across councils and other public sector organisations, can you tell us a bit more about what the Local Government Digital Partnership looks like?
The partnership was set up in 2017 at that point not all councils were signed up but they are now. We put funding into a pot, which pays for a small team of people whose role is to help councils and other organisations support each other in order to do things as a “once for Scotland” idea. We all deliver similar services, we might do it similar ways but the functions are very much the same so why are we doing it 32 times? So when the partnership was set up and the vision was a digital council by 2020 that was quite ambitions, but rightly so. What we have learnt since then is that transforming local government is not a quick process and everybody was starting from a different position in various areas. The partnership has allowed us to come together more readily and jointly work on issues and challenges, sharing best practice so we can move forward together. Our ambition remains to utilise technology for the greatest effect and embrace technologies that private businesses have been using for a while, such as chatbots, robotics, and artificial intelligence. It has been great to be involved in the partnership; there is a real sense of us coming together and supporting one another across all the areas of work. It has particularly been helpful to me as a team of one, all the support I can get from others is beneficial and it has allowed me to make the progress I have made already within the Council.
What would you say are your biggest challenges and how do you see new technologies helping with these challenges?
Our challenges at the moment centre around a decreasing budget and increasing demand and expectation from customers. The number of staff we have to deliver services has reduced so I see the new technologies as helping us to manage the demand and react to general inquiries in a straightforward way while our staff concentrate on those who are most in need and least likely to be able to self-service. We have been clear that we will not close off channels but we may reduce the availability of some. I think where technology will come in is helping with the routine and mundane tasks to allow staff to concentrate on the value added transactions. Currently the need to slim down our cluttered software is an absolute must, so that is where I need to start.
What do you think councils of the future will look like?
Councils are very complex organisations and I think they will absolutely continue to deliver a vast array of services to communities but I think there is going to be a greater emphasis on communities taking more responsibility for addressing very local issues with councils concentrating on our very vulnerable customers. The use of technology to support service delivery will become the norm and people will become comfortable with getting answers to their queries from virtual assistants.
What tool or app could you simply not live without?
I am coeliac, which means I have to have food with no gluten in it. Dining out can be a bit of a challenge so I find the Coeliac UK app invaluable. It shows me restaurants with gluten-free options no matter where I am in the country and it gives me peace of mind that I will not have to cause a fuss because of my funny eating habits.