Pam Smith took on the role of Chief Executive at Stockport Council at the start of September 2017. Here she talks to the MJ (Municipal Journal) about the Digital by Design programme.

This article first appeared in ‘MJ’ 18th October 2017.

I have been trying to get under the skin of Stockport in the weeks and months since becoming chief executive – dropping into libraries, meeting business leaders, taking bus rides.

Naturally, I have also benefitted from the thoughts and advice of councillors and officers from across the public sector. I am already finding plenty to shout about, be it the strength of partnership working that underpins a £1bn remodelling of the Town Centre; Ofsted’s recognition of our ‘outstanding’ adoption services; or the integrated working between council, NHS and voluntary sector teams at the heart of Stockport Neighbourhood Care.

I arrived in the borough with high hopes, and have been impressed with the level of talent and ambition I have found.

Like anyone who has moved around in local government and beyond, I know how hard it is when starting a new role to balance trusting your instincts with keeping an open mind. We bring hidden baggage with us and it takes time to appreciate the context and back-story of complex issues.

In a council that has reduced spending by £100m in recent years and is preparing to address a further £60m challenge over the medium-term, there are complex issues.

Focusing on a small number of priorities, checking the data and listening to the advice of others all help to move carefully through the first months of any new job. This is especially true in a large organisation with finely balanced politics, a range of major programmes and a responsibility, with our colleagues across Greater Manchester, to make a success of devolution.

Even with the most open of minds, it is still natural to make comparisons between how things are done in Stockport and how they are done in other places.

One of the areas where Stockport has taken a distinctly different approach is in its approach to digital transformation.

All councils are taking steps to digitise and re-design services, but a combination of ambition, investment and appetite for managed risk have helped Stockport break new ground.

Our Digital by Design programme takes an open, agile and in-house approach to delivering real impact and sustainable technical and cultural change. This allows us to constantly redesign our online services based on real user feedback and analytics.

Our digital teams sketch, prototype and evolve our digital products and services, working closely with council services and residents. They are often to be found out and about in the borough, mobiles and tablets in hand, observing how residents really use new software in order to continually make improvements.

We take on board residents’ views about how we name and market our new tools, and work with local groups to ensure accessibility is designed in at the start.

At the heart of the programme are a couple of core beliefs:

  • Our residents deserve digital public services that are as good as those provided by their bank, supermarket or online retailer.
  • To create these and to navigate the council’s uncertain path through the coming years, we need to own our digital capability, so it can grow and adapt as part of the wider organisation.

To do this, we developed tools that build on some common capabilities and that can be integrated with services across the council. This reduces the future cost of change.

We take a modular and scalable approach to technology, utilising both public and private cloud solutions. And, because we have built for ourselves the things we care most about, that most impact the user journey, we know we can evolve and improve at our own pace and direction.

We have seen particular success in the transformation of children and family services. Self-help and improved triage, referral and response are all facilitated by:

  • Information, advice and guidance through the new website and Stockport Local directory.
  • Rapid triage using ‘Signposts’, our bespoke, open source, single view tool.
  • Online referral through the Early Help Assessment form, supported by scripting, smart questions and improved case management.
  • Improved productivity and outcomes using new management information dashboards and new mobile working methods for social care, early help and school workforces.

We know that social workers tell us they are more responsive to families as a result.

Our Digital by Design programme is at the heart of the council, helping to transform how people work, their conversations and culture. Drawing on Kanban and other visual and agile tools, the programme has had an impact far beyond the IT service. It has changed how we are developing our local plan, how we designed our community investment model and even how we safeguard children. Along the way, we have supported people into new careers, to learn new skills and show untapped talents.