Public sector HR: Why digital transformation is so vital

Are local authorities ready for Government 2.0? Roisin Woolnough looks at how public sector employers are responding to the push to go digital and the role of HR in doing so.

“Government 2.0 is not a new kind of government: it is government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time,” according to Tim O’Reilly, founder of US company O’Reilly Media, in the book Open Government.

Government 2.0 has digital at its core and gives the public greater control over what services they access, how and when. Arguably, every public sector organisation needs to do this in order to achieve true digital transformation.

Doing this is as much about attitudes, culture and behaviours as it is about technology. It’s not a case of tinkering with parts of the business, adding a bit of digital here and bit of digital there, but otherwise carrying on as usual.

How are public sector employers doing?

Overall, UK public sector organisations are doing well on the digital front, according to recent research by information technology consultancy Sopra Steria.

Its report The Citizen View of the Digital Transformation of Government assessed the digital readiness of the UK, France, Germany and Norway in the eyes of citizens, and found largely favourable attitudes towards public sector digital development in the UK.

It claimed that “the UK Government is often cited as a pioneer in digital government”, and showed that 64% of UK citizens think digital is advanced in this country.

Andrew Grant, chief executive at Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC), says public sector organisations have no option but to transform: it’s a case of sink or swim.

“Back in 2010, we said to ourselves ‘This is going to end badly unless we change what we do’,” says Grant. “So we completely reinvented the organisation.”

Resource challenges

The driving force was rapidly diminishing funds. “Local government has had a massive reduction in funds. We’ve had a 62% cut in grants in five years. It will be 100% in the next two years. By 2020, all our grant will be completely gone. The money isn’t coming back so we have had to transform. All local government organisations are facing this,” he adds.

Digital is as much about culture and behaviour as it is about systems and processes.” – Kushal Birla, Warwickshire County Council

Coupled with this is the fact that those using public services have very different expectations about how they access services now, compared with five to 10 years ago.

But despite these two compelling driving forces, Grant says a lot of councils are still at transition stage, viewing transformation as a case of remodelling departments and throwing a bit of digital into the mix, when what they actually need to be doing is full blown transformation.

Greater freedom

AVDC went for full-scale transformation, with digital at the heart. Firstly, the council decided it was time to go infrastructure-less and move into the cloud.

“The cloud liberates you from the shackles of old systems,” says Grant. “You don’t need so many people fiddling about with computers and you can programme new technologies quickly.

“By going infrastructure-less, we reduced the footprint of the building and could untether people from the building – they can work any place, any time, anywhere.” This has led to greater efficiencies and saved the council millions of pounds.

Not only that, but moving away from legacy systems and ways of working has enabled the council to become more modern and commercial in its approach.

Staff spend a lot more time working in the field – social care workers using mobile devices to access and input information, for example – rather than being stuck in or constantly going to and fro council premises.

Rise of the robots

Something AVDC is very excited by is being the first council in the world it knows of to launch Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa.

Artificial intelligence now forms a central plank of AVDC’s digital strategy, enabling the council to provide a 24-hour service that meets service users’ needs and reduces the burden on AVDC’s workforce.

“We are using AI to help people get the answers they want. A lot of people come to us through web chat and the agent can do five web chats at once, rather than one person handling one phone call.”

From an HR perspective, Grant says this frees up resources, enabling the council to deploy people who would previously have been manning the phones and answering routine enquiries, to instead perform different, more complex tasks. Does this mean fewer local authority jobs? “Of course it will mean fewer jobs,” says Grant. “But people want us to be more efficient.”

All public sector organisations are encouraging users to be more self-sufficient and use digital avenues where possible. There has been widespread take-up of the MyAccount system, for example.

With MyAccount, users can access their data securely and find out about services such as council tax, rubbish collections etc and complete transactions. “It’s a rapid engagement tool and at AVDC, we have gone from no one using it two years ago, to 40,000 people using it now,” says Grant.

Having digital at the heart of what a council does is critical, but just as critical is having customers at the heart of everything as well.

“You have to have a business model that addresses the issue of creating value for people. How do you address the needs of your customers? How do you get ahead of them and look at workforce issues? You have to start with customers and work back.”

Building trust

Alison Mckenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive and director of customer transformation at Wigan Council, agrees with Grant that local authorities have no choice but to transform.

At Wigan, customer services had been set a target of £250,000 efficiency savings per year for the previous four years. Digitising processes for staff and customers has been a key part of that work and has helped to deliver these savings.

Part of the council’s digital strategy was internal digital transformation. This entailed, says Mckenzie-Folan, “getting services online, using technology to take demand out of the system, helping build people’s self reliance.” But it was also about how Wigan’s residents and businesses could use digital to get a better deal for themselves and everyone else.

This led to Wigan Council introducing “The Deal”, an informal agreement between the council and everyone who lives and works within the borough.

Under this, everyone is committed to working together to provide a better borough. It has a broad scope, including the rollout of better, faster broadband connectivity, digital workshops, digital champions, council staff being trained in listening properly to residents and individuals and businesses coming up with transformation ideas, such as sustainability initiatives.

“It’s a psychological contract around what we do as a council and what we ask residents to get involved in, doing their bit,” says Mckenzie-Folan.

Return on investment

There’s good reason for local residents and businesses to buy into The Deal. The Deal for Communities Investment Fund launched in 2013 and has so far pledged £9m to community initiatives, with more than 380 community initiatives supported to date.

Every £1 spent has brought a fiscal return of £1.58 to public services, such as two volunteer-run libraries and a thriving volunteer-run swimming pool.

Wigan Council has been widely applauded for its pioneering digital strategy, becoming the Local Government Chronicle Digital council of the year 2016, as well as winning the Digital Leaders Award 2016.

According to Mckenzie-Folan, HR has been heavily involved in the digital transformation strategy and implementation, throughout.

There has been and still is an emphasis on workforce behaviours, with HR and the OD team working with the digital team to establish where the workforce was at in terms of skills and behaviours and where it needed to be.

This has given rise to BeWigan behaviours – co-created by staff that set out what is expected of them in delivering The Deal. This was followed up by BeWigan manager behaviours.

Cultural shift

As Kushal Birla, head of customer service at Warwickshire County Council, says, it is essential that employees are on board with digital transformation and committed to new ways of working.

HR needs to ensure that happens. “Digital is as much about culture and behaviour as it is about systems and processes,” she says.

You have to have a business model that addresses the issue of creating value for people. How do you address the needs of your customers? How do you get ahead of them and look at workforce issues? You have to start with customers and work back.” – Andrew Grant, Aylesbury Vale District Council

“To some extent, identifying new systems that will work is the easy bit. It’s making sure everyone knows what the organisation is trying to do, why, and ensuring they are in support of this is the most challenging part.”

Grant couldn’t agree more: “The biggest thing is cultural and the biggest bit that HR needs to do is around tackling behaviours. Behaviours and culture will always trump everything else,” he says.

AVDC reinvented itself around a new set of behaviours and all staff went through a behavioural assessment centre, focusing on aspects such as commercial awareness and collaborative working.

Grant says HR was highly instrumental in all of this, for example fostering engagement with the programme but also on the more technical side, such as changing employment contracts and terms and conditions.

Joining it all up

Neill Crump, chief data officer at Worcestershire Office of Data Analytics (Woda), a lean start-up jointly funded by the NHS, Police, County, Districts and Fire and Local Enterprise Partnership, argues that the digital strategy must receive HR and top level support and that it must align to an organisation’s corporate strategy.

It also needs to engender joined-up thinking and working. Woda is the first jointly funded UK Office of Analytics in the public sector and this form of multi-agency working has had many benefits – such as a positive impact on patient flow for the discharge of people into social care settings, local resilience planning and so on.

Public sector organisations have to become a lot more collaborative in order to make digital transformation work. “It’s working out loud,” says Crump. “Breaking down silos with transparency about what everyone is doing and how everyone is working.”

During the transformation process, Crump says it was crucial to take an iterative approach. This meant delivering digital solutions in manageable chunks, learning from mistakes and moving on.

It also required HR to ensure that all involved parties were ready for the new ways of working.

This included supporting leaders to embrace digital, arranging digital events for the talent management group, integrating digital and data in the social care academy and the recruitment of new people with digital skills.

HR leaders that have been involved in these projects agree that digital transformation has to be the new reality. Public sector organisations that don’t realise this face a pretty stark future – potentially, as Crump says: “They will become obsolete.”

One Response to Public sector HR: Why digital transformation is so vital

  1. john mortimer 30 Jan 2018 at 6:11 pm #

    Great piece Roisin. I have followed some of the organisations that you have mentioned in the article and agree that the evidence points to the fact that digital is going to create cavings.
    Wigan though, is doing more than just going digital. It is focusing on other transformational work to identify preventable causes of problems that cause complex demands into the council.

    Roisin, would you agree with me that, simplifying the picture, the evidence shows that digital is very good with transactional demands. But people have yet to be replaced in situations there the demand to the council is one of ‘help me’ and involved behavioural or inability to cope situations. These demands account for a large % of the council resources. And the evidence is not yet around that shows that digital can deal with complexity and wicked problems. To my knowledge, AVDC have not released any evidence to demonstrate the detail on how they are going to tackle this type of demand.

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