Management > Identity

Ambitious Essex wants to deliver differently and digitally for citizens

Published 26 February 2017

Councillor Stephen Canning says “smart” summit taking place today will consider digital’s role in future of public services within the county


It’s 2017 and suddenly everyone’s a founder, every roundabout is made of silicon and the roads of London are paved with code, not gold. It’s easy to get lost in the hype that’s surrounding the tech and digital sector – but there genuinely is huge potential and, importantly, a lot of work to be done.

Certainly, this isn’t all about the next Google or the next Uber – I’m more excited about what it means for our citizens. This is why I’ve called together a summit of digital leaders to discuss how we can utilise this innovative thinking to make lives better for our residents.

There can no longer be any doubt that we have entered a new era for public service delivery. In previous years, at events like these, we may have debated about the relative merits of online commerce, social media or the Internet of Things. We may have argued they were trends, experiments, niches. Not redefining almost every industry, and many of our behaviours.

Digital developments, however, are no longer up for debate. Instant online payments, maintaining friendships across continents and machines which alert us when a loved one has had a fall are now commonplace. In many spheres not just commonplace, but expected.

We are now in an era where residents don't just hope, but expect services to be digital.  Not just hope, but expect our online experiences to be seamless, interactive and bound together across the online and offline world. I don't care what website I'm using, or what shop I am visiting, I don't hope, I expect a seamless service.  It almost feels odd if I don't.

This offers a significant challenge to public services, but also a significant opportunity.

The UK public sector spends approximately £4.6bn on IT a year. Essex spends an estimated £160m. On the one hand this makes up under  2 per cent of our £2.1bn annual spend, so not a huge amount for a population of 1.3m and 8,000 staff.  However, taken as a whole it represents a significant opportunity to deliver differently.

As we have learned from our colleagues in government we can reduce the amount of spend in technical IT, whilst increasing spend on redesigning services.  Despite the challenges, we must learn the lessons from the national Government Digital Service in local government too.

Of course there have been challenges, but let us not forget that 3,000 websites are now one, even modest estimates put savings at £140m a year, and the service experience has vastly improved for citizens.  From viewing your state pension online to renewing a driving licence, these services make a difference to people.

GDS are also moving to the next stage of digital government.  From service transactions to service patterns and platforms.  Pay, notify and verify offer even more potential for scale.  We have recently announced that we are supportive of the Verify programme and look forward to working with central government to make that work.  It is the beginning of a journey, but an example of learning from central government, and then improving on it.

Much wider, what governments and private industry has taught us is that digital is not just about technology.  It’s about capability, mind-setand delivery.  In capability it’s about upskilling staff.  It’s about getting better at user research, designing around needs, and being deliberate about technical standards.

It’s about a mind-set:  Not institutional mind-sets, but service delivery ones.  This frees us to think not just about collaboration with partners, but with service users and citizens.  If we are moving to a platform based model of delivery then our role from direct delivery to enabling requires us to think about our own organisational boundaries.

It’s also about how we deliver services in future. Instead of spending six months thinking about whether an idea might be good or not, we need to spend six weeks understanding the problem we would like to solve.  Then a further six weeks testing some assumptions. In the six months it takes to consider complex service redesign in committee, we may have already redesigned part of a service on the ground.  Being agile, adaptive, open to failure, sharing our success.

Our summit is for us to talk about the digital revolution and much more. We are there to talk about the future of public services, and the future of Essex the county.

This means saving money, enabling a more productive workforce, and growing our reputation.  We know we have a significant spending challenge which we need to address.

This is why we are demonstrating a clear ambition about the future of our great county, to tell our citizens that we want to deliver differently, because that is what they expect from us.

Saving money whilst improving services is possible. Having a more productive workforce with better tools and building capability is possible. Delivering better, more intuitive services to improve our reputation is possible.

We are calling all of this a Smart Essex approach. Being smarter about how we work, who we work with and where we focus our energy.

So what is our ambition?  Not salami slicing or tweaking the system. We know this will no longer work.

As our attendees today join the workshops and share their experiences, I’d have one request: be ambitious. Be ambitious, because we can no longer be trapped in current ways of working.

To be truly digital we have to build digital services around resident needs. Not institutional mind-sets.

At Essex we are taking a more radical path in becoming a truly digital organisation, with a clear Smart Vision and an investment programme to sit alongside.

We intend to build platforms, not websites. We are investing in digital adult social care, open data platforms for our services and capability building for our staff. We are investing in projects that work at the frontline and challenge some of our core assumptions about what we do and do not deliver. In an era of Amazon Echo and smart watches we need to always to be at the forefront of understanding how digital can support us.

Stephen Canning is Essex County Council Cabinet member for Digital Innovation, IT and Customer Services

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