Hackney tests tech frontiers for local services

Interview: Matthew Cain, head of digital at the London borough, talks about measured steps and keeping options open with robotics, bots and remote working

Matthew Cain isn’t one for talking about a grand IT strategy. Instead he portrays progress as a series of measured steps, small scale pilots from which to learn and plot the next move, discovering the pros and cons of a technology and bringing the service chiefs on board.

Matthew CainThe head of digital at the London Borough of Hackney is currently thinking about taking those steps through robotics. The council has been investigating the potential for robotic process automation (RPA), with a pilot for managing direct debits in housing benefits and a plan to build up its role in the council’s IT infrastructure.

It derives from the legacy of investment in hundreds of applications but the absence of a killer app to run an end-to-end service, and a continued reliance on the manual transfer of data for many processes.

“Robotics are an important part of our agenda for next three to six months as it offers the ability to join together our systems to provide a single version of the truth more efficiently than we’ve been able to do so far,” Cain says. “It saves on having to rip out lots of legacy systems or spend thousands on writing APIs for stuff that is low volume or doesn’t have be in real time. Robotics can do some of heavy lifting for us.”

He describes it as the link between three systems: a web based interface for customers; a business application managing a council service; and a payments product that can be integrated with a finance system. RPA is able to transfer relevant data from the customer portal to the application, then take the elements required by the payment system – without the need for human intervention.

First step ambition

The recent pilot was run with digital consultancy T-Impact and RPA specialist UiPath, and Cain decided to limit the ambition for the first step.

“I was keen not to do it in way it would have been done historically: six to nine months of pulling together business case across multiple services to get buy-in to the idea, then tender for a contract with an RPA provider who spends months in implementation, and the cost savings never quite materialise,” he says.

“So we asked what was minimum viable product to give people confidence the solution works, demonstrate it in a Hackney environment to be persuasive to colleagues, and teach us about skills and capabilities we need to buy in and develop in-house. It’s in order for RPA to be part of the IT toolkit.”

The exercise was deemed a success, reducing the time taken for transferring data from Hackney’s One Account portal to the application software by 73%. It also showed that the transfer of data could be more accurate, the process was scalable, and provided a use case proving the technology’s potential value for other processes. Also, customer service agents have been taking it a step further in learning to spot patterns in exception reports.

Cain says it was implemented at less the original budget, and that even a technical glitch that occurred has taught the team how to spot potential problems.

Closer to RoI

“By starting with that small scale example we should achieve an RoI within about 14 months, which feels about right given the way the technology is improving,” he says. “With RPA we shouldn’t be looking at a 3-5 year RoI because within years we could be using different bots and a different underlying legacy.

“This is very much in the context of trying to broaden out the number of options we have for delivering great digital services.”

He is now showing the results of the pilot around the organisation, along with a framework for service chiefs to assess whether it could work for them, and emphasising the potential for high volume services that still rely on elements of cutting and pasting data.

“By taking that small scale pilot approach we’ve been able to prove it works relatively quickly,” he says. “It went from my first conversation with director of revenues and benefits to delivering the pilot in four months. We can now roll it out across other revenues and benefits processes learning as we go.”

Cain is also clear that he does not want to make a heavy commitment to one robotics solution.

“The market is evolving in 6-12 month phases. At the moment we have some work to do to catch up with what is currently available on the market, and I’m sure once the solution is in and working the next challenge will be ensuring it continues to evolve. It’s all too easy to imagine that in three years’ time we might have legacy bots that are behind the curve.”

Sixfold focus

The approach to RPA reflects the broader sweep of the digital transformation effort in Hackney. Cain says the tone was set with the appointment just over a year ago of Rob Miller as director of ICT, who made clear he didn’t want to spend time a lot of time in reviews aimed at a big strategy, and instead opted for six areas of focus for the next 18 months: accelerating digital service transformation; modernising productivity tools; using information as an asset; developing the ICT service; building a robust technology platform; and working in partnership with the service departments.

This has been followed up with the development of the HackIT manifesto, which focuses on the way of working with 11 steps that very much reflect the iterative and collaborative approach advocated by the Government Digital Service. Cain periodically reports on progress through his section of the council blog.

He says the dynamics at Hackney differ to those of his previous post at Buckinghamshire County Council, from which he moved at the turn of the year. The job combines the forward-looking projects with an operational responsibility, including areas where things may not be working smoothly.

“It's a good thing because I have to think much more carefully about that transition from project to bringing things to service,” he says. “It’s not just about delivering a new thing but about a sustained change.  At Bucks it was about showing people what the future could look like, but now have to balance with ensuring that today, tomorrow, next week the service is stable, reliable and secure.

“Another contextual difference is that Buckinghamshire has made a commitment to saving £1.9 million over three years through digital, whereas Hackney has not made a specific commitment. At Buckinghamshire I was going to service heads and saying I was there to help them save money; here it’s more about partnership, collaboration and working with the services most ready to achieve change.”

This influences the pilots of new technology, helping to assess user needs and demonstrating to council staff, councillors and the public that it has a value.

iPad project

Cain points to a recent test of remote working by social workers, which involved equipping 20 with iPads connected to the Mosaic application. It produced plenty of positive feedback and has fed into what he describes as a “compelling” case to buy 80 more of the devices.

The council is planning to follow this with a trial of voice bots and consumer devices. It plans to run a small procurement for the design of pilot projects in the next few weeks, and is agnostic about the possible technology choices.

“We have capital funding to design pilots of new devices to explore things like voice activated services, like Google Home or Amazon Alexa, to help people who can’t self-serve on the web to access council services in a different way,” Cain says.

“We’re also looking at how connected devices, like the equivalent of an Amazon Dash Button, can help people who don’t have confidence in reordering visitor vouchers (one-off parking permits) and services on the web.”

Again, he is holding back from a long term commitment because: “It’s a fast moving market and the entry of Apple might change things again. We don’t even yet fully understand the right role for a local authority in relation to those devices.”

Another priority is to keep an eye on what other authorities are doing, work with some where possible, and try to avoid any duplication of effort. For example, he says Hackney is sharing its work to improve its FixMyHome service for tenant and leaseholders with Adur & Worthing Council, which is running a similar project.

Collaboration question

He is also flexible about some projects being right for Hackney to go it alone and others for working closely with other councils, notably in pan-London groupings. It reflects his view that collaboration is great in essence, but that there can be times when it won’t deliver the goods.

“The ability to work pan-London and as part of small groups is really valuable, but as with any collaboration you should not lose the essence of why you went into it,” he says.

“Collaborations that lock you into a particular governance or funding model over a time period that does not enable you to adapt to changing technology can be as self-defeating as trying to do it yourself. We’ve seen all sorts of collaborations; some are very well designed and others less so.”

But he says there has been a positive step for pan-London efforts in the past few days - the appointment of Theo Blackwell as the city authority’s first chief digital officer. Cain says this could open up more opportunities for the capital’s boroughs to find new ways of making progress. This could mean more options for Hackney.

“It will be a significant catalyst for change and we are open for lots of options. It’s really important that given the complexity of local government we are able to take advantage of a multi-layered approach.”