MORE than £800,000 has been committed to transforming the digital infrastructure of Adur and Worthing councils – but will this investment reap returns for taxpayers?
Words like ‘ambitious’ and ‘groundbreaking’ have been used to describe the councils’ award-winning programme, agreed in December last year.
And while the investment represents a significant outlay, council chiefs are adamant it will not only be paid back within three years but lead to wide-ranging savings to dampen the effect of austerity.
Director for digital and resources Paul Brewer said: “Part of what customers will see is that the council is going to be as easy to interact with as some of the services they are really used to like Amazon, Air B&B and Tesco.
“When digital works well and people get answers quickly, that is the expectation and we absolutely expect ourselves to deliver that level. Local government has been left behind and we want to catch up.”
The councils employed digital consultants Methods to help it set up new digital services and make sure its current network could cope with the changes.
The consultancy work took up more than £600,000 of the overall spend, with the re-procurement of smart phones for councillors and employees among other costs. The total bill adds up to £830,610.
In parallel to this, the council is also investing £325,000 in new software and telephone systems.
It is hoped the new systems will spell an end to outages on the scale seen in 2012, which left funeral directors unable to book slots at Worthing Crematorium and leisure centre online booking systems to collapse.
But financial pressures and the need to make savings is also a key benefit, according to head of digital and design Dave Briggs.
Local government has been left behind and we want to catch up.”Paul Brewer, director for digital and resources
He said: “Local government is facing a number of challenges around finances. Within that financial environment there is still the expectation that we deliver better and better services at the same time.
“One of the things we can do to help square that is to have best tech available that we can.”
Savings of £209,000 have been identified within the 2016/17 council budget, with the digital team targeting a pay back of three years on the original investment.
These savings have been made through switching off redundant systems and cancelling old licences, among other initiatives.
A focus on Google technology has allowed for the cancellation of Microsoft products like Outlook and Office, chopping nearly £40,000 a year from its previous £150,000 licence budget.
Progress will be evaluated by council cabinet members next week, with a report updating councillors on savings and staff reaction.
Mr Briggs said: “There will always be some people that are stuck in old ways but the vast majority have been like ducks to water.”
The project has also gained the support of Worthing’s opposition. Liberal Democrat councillor Bob Smytherman said: “Given the IT fiasco a few years ago under previous council management, I welcome the progress made so far with digital transformation.”
UKIP’s Charles James said time would tell whether the ‘welcome’ savings were achieved.
Ready for rollout
MUCH of the work on the digital transformation has been behind the scenes – but residents will soon notice changes, the council has pledged.
Described as ‘plumbing’ by Dave Briggs, the digital team has spent most of the last year programming and working in the background.
But initial work with the council’s waste management team will soon go live – with ‘green’ garden waste bins a prime example of efficiency savings.
Currently, residents ordering a green bin must call the council and place an order, with their information passed manually through several departments before reaching the waste management team for delivery.
Soon, orders will be placed online and, through a series of algorithms, passed directly to the cleansing services manager for delivery the next day, saving hours of office time. Customers will still receive their new bin in around 24 hours but the waste team will be freed up to improve the service in other areas.
Paul Brewer said: “Now, a customer will pay for a green bin, pay online and because of the system it goes straight to the team as a job to be done, sent to their tablets so they can take home a load of green bins and deliver them in the morning without having to go in and pick up a job sheet.
“It’s saved us an awful lot of inefficiency.”
Mr Brewer added that while services often appeared efficient to residents, behind the scenes the process was not as streamlined as it could be.
“At the receiving end, an email will come in and the office will have to handle it and type that into the database behind the scenes to trigger activity.
“It’s a really nasty break between what appears to be great self-service and the inefficiency behind the scenes.”
The principles of the green bin system will require minor tweaking to be transferred to other services, with HR and housing services also in line to benefit.
A report to the joint strategic committee states: “A complaints and compliments product will be completed by the end of the year and a new starters HR app has removed nine paper forms that managers used to have to fill in.
“We are already making progress with a bereavement services app and a service signposting product for Think Family workers. In some of these cases, there will be cashable savings to book in 2017/18 but in others, new digital products will simply help relieve pressures on existing staff.”
‘Sock it to ‘em’
THE councils’ digital innovation was recognised by industry experts last week with the authorities winning a national award.
Paul Brewer collected the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) digital innovation award at a ceremony in Leicester.
Announcing the news at Worthing full council last Tuesday, mayor Michael Donin inadvertently referred to the accolade as the ‘sock it to ‘em’ awards.
The organisation praised the transformation, creating a new ‘citizen platform’, enabling services to be rapidly digitised over the next few years. Adur District Council leader Neil Parkin said: “Paul Brewer and his team have been working for just over 18 months, in delivering innovative and cost-effective digital services for Adur residents.
“This timely award is in recognition of the success of their work so far and of the innovative digital-based services they will be able to provide in the near future. Such is the excellence and inventiveness of their work, I expect far more awards to follow in the future.”
Mr Brewer said the work had begun attracting interest from other organisations, keen to learn how similar processes could be adopted.
Worthing Borough Council leader Dan Humphreys added: “This great work is having a very positive effect on driving down operating costs and improving the services that we provide to the public.”