This article first appeared in ‘Public Sector Executive’ February/March 2018.

Stockport is changing.  We’re reinvigorating our Town Centre through strong partnerships and a £1billion investment programme; we’re creating new relationships and opportunities as part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority; and we’re building new public services with our partners in the Police, NHS and local voluntary and community groups.

Digital technologies and skills are supporting each of these new horizons, and more.  But crucially, it’s not just the digital tech that plays a key role – it’s a digital culture too; one that’s about experimentation, people and conversations. Emerging from our Digital by Design programme, this culture has changed how we develop our Local Plan, design a new community investment model and even help keep children safe.

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

  • that our residents deserve digital public services that are as good as those provided by their bank, supermarket or online retailer
  • that 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

We’re working more closely with our services and closing the gap between digital and the frontline. We have created a unique Stockport approach to change, putting communication, co-design and continuous improvement at the heart of delivery. We’ve supported people to learn new skills and show untapped talents. We don’t know what further challenges we will face so we have introduced new flexible and responsive ways of working across our services so we can be adaptive, whatever the future may hold.

This is why we took the brave decision to retain all programme and supplier management in-house and to be in charge of our own journey. We are creating a platform of reusable digital capabilities, which we can roll out across our organisation, reducing the overall cost of ongoing digital transformation and change.

Digital Public Services

This transformation is already making a difference across our local communities. In our Children and Family Services, where we need to prevent escalation of problems, we are facilitating self-help, improved triage, referral and response by:

  • Information, advice and guidance through new websites and ’Stockport Local’ directory;
  • Rapid triage of calls regarding at risk children and families using ‘Signposts’, our bespoke open source, single view tool which pulls together data from different agencies relating to all contacts with the family;
  • Online referral through the Early Help Assessment form, supported by scripting, smart questions and improved case management ;
  • Improving productivity using new management information dashboards and new mobile working methods for social care, early help and school workforces.

We know what a difference this is making. Contact between officers and other agencies who are working with a family is increased and Social Workers tell us they are more responsive to families as a result.

We have also focussed on the areas that bring the highest volume of queries to our Contact Centre such as Council Tax, Benefits, Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG), Waste and Registrars. Our research indicated that the majority of our residents could self-serve from the internet if given the digital tools to do so, reducing demand on more costly contact channels.

We have transformed the options for self-referral and accessing information, advice and guidance  through the creation of new websites, ‘My Account’ (our new single sign-on customer account for personalised access to Council Services), ‘Stockport Local’, our groups and services directory and the introduction of a range of online tools for reporting and tracking faults, booking and managing appointments.

We have evidence that this is working – there has been a reduction in contacts to our Contact Centre since our launch and waiting times for a home visit are down from 10 weeks to 2 weeks and for office appointments down from 6 weeks to 1 week.

Owning our digital capability

 Our software has been created in-house based on Government Digital Service (GDS) best practice and procurement frameworks, and advice from our delivery partners, ThoughtWorks. This enabled us to prioritise scope, control cost and ensure work was designed to professional standards.

In turn, much of the technology that we have created has been published as Open Source on GitHub for reuse by the wider public and third sector networks. Our bespoke Signposts single-view tool is a prime example; we are encouraging other Local Authorities to take advantage of this with its potential to help keep children safe.

We have radically transformed our IT department into a sustainable, scalable Agile and DevOps environment. Our services work in close partnership with our digital development teams, identifying the user’s needs, drawing on Kanban and other visual and agile tools, attending ‘stand-ups’ and Showcases. We have embedded agile iterative development techniques of build, test, refine and repeat which put the user at the heart of our processes, constantly redesigning our online services based on feedback and analytics.

This focus on the end-user, both citizens and those delivering the services, is key to identifying and overcoming barriers to digital.  Our teams observe how end-users really use the 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.  This approach has meant the early release of new digital tools and services in minimum viable form so we can test the user experience and ensure they are easy to discover and use. As a result,  citizens see improvements to services quickly and we deliver value early to our business.

We have new communication channels with our workforce overcoming early trepidation about the new systems, ensuring staff are kept up-to-date, can use the tools confidently and will be enthusiastic ambassadors for the new digital services. Our weekly blog ensures staff and stakeholders have detailed information on every new development and milestone.

All Councils are taking steps to digitise and re-design services, but Stockport has taken a distinctly different approach to digital transformation. By developing our Digital by Design programme in-house, we have built our own platform of common capabilities that that can be integrated with services across the Council.  This reduces the future cost of change and because we have built for ourselves, we know we can evolve and improve at our own pace and direction.

Our Digital by Design programme is delivering real impact and sustainable technical and cultural change that has had impact far beyond the IT service. Our open and agile approach is being adopted by teams across the Council, helping transform how people work, their conversations and culture and ensuring communication, co-design and continuous improvement is at the heart of Stockport’s future.