Building a Digital Stockport

Feature: Stockport Council has kept the emphasis on in-house development – ‘owning the last mile’ – in its transformation programme

It’s a familiar story for local government: one big round of savings achieved, and now the demand for another. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council has taken £100 million out of its spending since 2010; but it is now looking at taking out another £50 million, assuming no increase in council tax, from September of this year.

Young programmer showing old lady a computerThis is creating the need for a new phase to its Digital Stockport programme, and the council recognises that it has to spend to save. The first phase involved an investment of about £7.5 million for the two years beginning September 2015, and has paid off by accounting for £40 million of £100 million.

According to the council’s head of digital design, Steve Skelton, the new round is going to require a comparable investment in digital, with a return of 2:1. It is a stiff challenge, but he believes it is within the council’s capabilities, especially as has already built the platform that will make it possible.

Digital Stockport got under way following a period of cross-party scrutiny – the effect of it being a hung council – in which the digital team made the business case to members by creating a series of customer journeys, using benefits and dependency maps to show where digital could make a big difference. Skelton says the key ingredient in this was ensuring the individual cases came from the relevant service teams.

Service-led

“Rather than, as some councils have done, digital driving transformation, we’ve gone the other way around to digital enabling transformation,” he says. “The leadership around the vision for future services is very much led from the services themselves.

“We developed a strategic business case for investment from council reserves in 2015. It essentially argued that as the council had agreed a programme of spending reductions adding up to £40 million over a number of years, it was not going to be without an investment in digital.

“The service models were going to have smaller teams, more productive, the people having access to business intelligence, and it assumed a degree of self-service by residents and better access to information. Without making that parallel investment in our digital capabilities we would have restructured services just for them to run into the same old problems.”

The technology choices began with some soft market testing, in which the team spoke with about 60 vendors – large and small companies – and decided it was going to keep much of the effort in-house.

“We think we can do this better by being in control of ourselves,” Skelton says. “A lot of that was facilitated by access to the intellectual property the Government Digital Service has shared, particularly the Digital Services Framework and Digital Marketplace.”

The exception to this was engaging creative technology consultancy ThoughtWorks, which Skelton says has supported the council’s culture change and agile developments by working with the in-house team.

“There was a wholesale shift in culture to agile around visualisation of work, daily stand-ups, lean development, releasing minimum viable products and improving them in the live environment. It’s been a real change for us,” he says.

Legacy and open source

The programme involved building a technology architecture based on integrating legacy systems with web services and, where possible, using open source software to customise it all. Where this was not possible it leased products for building into the technology stack.

Stockport also made a point of learning what it could from other councils that had gone further with their transformations – Skelton cites Bristol and Adur & Worthing – although it has not actually used another’s technology. It has also made a lot of its own code and rules available for re-use through GitHub.

The efforts involved in shifting most of the council's data to a scalable, on-premise solution last summer, and brought a public facing result last month when the council formally relaunched its website. It has made use of existing forms that had previously been developed in-house, and features include a ‘My Account’ facility that gives residents access to personalised information on services through a single sign-up.

Skelton highlights the potential for people to report issues and track the progress and how they are being handled. It has begun with the ability to report streetlight faults, with other functions to be added – the next will be reporting blocked drains then potholes.

Another plan, set to be delivered in the next three months, is to develop a ‘marketplace’ of community services that are provided by groups other than the council. It is aimed at increasing the volume of self-service through the site, although the council does not have a firm target.

Last mile

“One of the principles we talk about a lot is ‘owning the last mile’ of the customer journey, and having a lot of bespoke development in the front end,” Skelton says. “The website, which went to beta in July and live in September, is built on Contentful, an open source CMS, with in-house development on areas like the taxonomy and design.

“Compared with the website we had before we have a lot more flexibility. In an environment with devolution, integration with the NHS and we don’t necessarily know what’s coming down the path, it gives us a responsiveness we wouldn’t have had if locked into a particular platform. The first time we build something it’s a big effort, but it’s replicable; the same tech and design concepts can be used.”

There have also been changes to internal systems. Social services staff now have access to a Single View function, which pulls data from a number of sources into a safeguarding hub to show when anything relevant to a case has occurred. Skelton says the technology is relatively straightforward and the heavy work has been in developing the information governance. The council is currently talking with local NHS bodies and Greater Manchester Police to develop a second version to become available in minimum viable product form in April.

The team has also built a spatial data warehouse and is working on another for service data, and is building an analytical capability with the Tableau data visualisation tool.

“We’re trying to make this type of capability available across the board,” Skelton says. “It’s something we need with fewer staff, fewer resources. The holy grail for everyone is predictive analytics, but for now we’re trying to get better management information.”

Community campaign

An additional element to Digital Stockport is an effort to build up the relevant skills in the community. This has partly been in the cause of digital inclusion, but also to make people at the bottom of the job ladder more employable.

“When we began the conversation with the politicians, their two concerns were around privacy and data security, and that it did not slam a digital door in faces of people who could not access digital services.

“All through this work we’ve had a focus on assisted digital, which comes together around the DigiKnow brand. I’m talking to people about whether we can spin this into a support alliance. We could wrap it up in a more joined up offer to make it more sustainable.”

It has staged a number of events recently under the DigiFeb banner to spread basic IT skills, including a DigiFest day that provided training in basic coding, and a hackathon for people to present ideas on using digital technology.

Looking forward to the next round of investment, Skelton highlights two points as being crucial to a transformation of this type. One is that it needs the ambition and leadership to make it work, especially in steering staff away from early trepidation towards an enthusiasm for the new systems.

The other is that there is a risk in committing to an in-house development, in that IT staff can often be lured to higher paying jobs elsewhere, especially in a conurbation such as Greater Manchester.

“We can’t compete on wages, so have to compete on basis where people can learn and do some social good,” he says. “We also push the advantages such as flexible working and shared development opportunities. We have to shout about these things.”

Image from Stockport Council - Never too old to learn new skills at one of the Digi Feb events.