'Arte et labore' Digital Strategy Update and Review 2022

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In April 2021 the Council’s Executive Board approved an updated BwD Digital Strategy 2021-2024, which outlined a number of initiatives across 4 work streams;

1. Digital First for our Services

2. Enable Transformation for our Staff

3. Data Driven Organisation

4. Secure and Resilient Technology

Blackburn with Darwen has invested in the people, skills and infrastructure to provide 21st century public services, which has enabled the Council and its services to work in new ways. As the Council embarked on its latest vision for digital and technology it was doing so with strong foundations, albeit after a prolonged crisis with the Covid-19 pandemic in which the pace of technological change rapidly increased. Much progress has been made in the first year of delivering the new strategy and the strategy remains dynamic to the changing requirements and priorities of the Council.

Work Stream 1 - Digital First for our Services

The Council procured a low-code Digital Customer Platform (DCP) in February 2020 as a replacement for the legacy, end of life portal. The portal had been prone to issues of regular downtime for customers and was at the end of support and security, which was a major risk. The Digital team as part of the pandemic response brought forward plans to launch online services through the new platform by 8 months. Our GDS Agile/Design training had laid the way to deliver in this way. 

We delivered rapid 24/7 online services to businesses, individuals and families. The team developed over 30 different Covid related online forms including for business grants, Help Hub requests, HWRC bookings and SMART Covid testing. Between April 2020 and March 2021 the system processed over 96,000 Covid related requests and transactions across Help Hub, HWRCs and Grants & Support. Without the platform, this level of requesting would have required serious people resources. 

Since its launch in 2020, the Digital Customer Platform has seen over 50 new services designed and delivered digitally alongside existing services migrated from the legacy customer portal. By April 2022 65,000 customers had signed up with an online account, compared to 29,000 on the legacy portal. At the time of writing there are 79,700 users signed up to the DCP. Over 160 digital forms remain live, covering 36 service areas.

During 2021/22 our digital first Blue Badge Service reduced processing time to an average of 19 days from 38 days in 2020/21. 94% of applicants self-served and the remainder were digitally assisted. in 2022 the processing time has reduced further to an average of 8 days at the time of writing this blog.

Iterating development of the Council's Website

After redesigning and launching the Council’s website in 2019 we have continually iterated the site to provide a more accessible experience. According to the independent Silktide Index for UK Council accessibility, the BwD website has consistently scored highly since 2020 with scores of 87/100 (March 2020) 90/100 (March 2021) and 91/100 (March 2022). We were chosen at random to be reviewed by the Cabinet Office In December last year for compliance against the newly adopted Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1.

After being one of the early adopter Local Gov Drupal partners, we released a new website for the Council in November 2022 (Welcome to Blackburn with Darwen | Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council). This is built on Government Digital Service principles and design standards. Our aim from day one has been to make Council services as easy as renewing your car tax. It's a long journey that we continue. We're one month in, so more to come in future blogs on how we did it and how it's gone. 

Compared to pre-pandemic, the Council website see's an average of double the visitors and usage now. A clear sign that people are self serving more and finding it easier to transact and find information. One of our key objectives was making the Council website work on mobile devices because that's the main way people access the site now. 

User Research roles

During 2021/22 we introduced User Research roles to support development of our digital services. Our User Researchers have continued to develop a Customer Panel with our residents. A key change has been to work with specified cohorts of people as part of the panel so we can better target groups to help us design specific services. We feel that in order to design services around the people we serve we have to REALLY involve them and co-design with them. One of the best quotes I've heard back from residents is 'you really listen now'.

Digital Inclusion

The BwD Digital Inclusion Network was formed in 2021, creating a formal collaboration group between 3rd Sector, Council and partners. To date the group has mapped and coordinated activity and intelligence across the borough to support collaboration on initiatives to improve learning and access to digital across the borough. In May 2022 we added Digital Inclusion Strategy’ to the Council’s portfolio for Digital & Customer Services and we are developing policy approaches to be agreed in 2022/23. We already support people through our assisted digital methods and have a thriving partnership that helps people get online but we know we can go further and increase the coordination of delivery and intelligence. Follow our VCFS Digital Designer Nicole on Twitter for more here @Nicomaso

Work Stream 2 - Enable Transformation for our Staff

During 2021/22 work took place to plan and develop a BwD online Digital Skills Hub for staff, which launched in May 2022. The hub will enable higher levels of digital confidence for staff, enabling them to increase effectiveness using digital tools. There are now 59 digital champions in place across the Council. 

The organisation has continued to take advantage of the Council’s investment in Office 365, including Microsoft Teams and Teams Rooms video conferencing. Services and staff have an increased level of flexibility in working locations and patterns. Travel to and from office locations is reduced and we can now approach estates strategy in new ways to reduce costs. 82% of users are actively using Microsoft Teams in the organisation, making collaboration easier.

By introducing video streaming technology to the Council Chamber, Council meetings are now routinely live streamed and are accessible to watch back on-line. This enables increased transparency and supports open democracy. Introducing ‘Teams Rooms’ video conferencing into meeting rooms has also enabled Councillors to take part in training and some meetings virtually, improving flexibility and reducing travel.

Through the introduction of the DCP into service workflows we have increased mobile working and transformed services. These include street cleansing, bin deliveries and bulky collections where customers now submit online requests and jobs are automatically picked up on mobile devices by officers. There is no printing of jobs or returning to base to receive allocated work and customers are notified of the completion of jobs automatically online. In the Changing Futures team, officers in the field across Lancashire use the Digital Customer Portal to log cases on tablet computers and digitally triage and refer people into relevant services.

Work Stream 3 - Data Driven Organisation

A new data infrastructure has been introduced to the Council based on the Microsoft Power BI platform and Azure. We have worked with 3rd party partners to assist in the configuration and build. The platform provides us with the ability to integrate, process and visualise key data for Officers and Councillors. The infrastructure is scalable and is designed to grow with an increasing need for data in the delivery of future public services. Currently there are approximately 30 Power BI data dashboards in use across Council departments, including Highways, Environment, Children’s Services, Help Hub and Customer Services.

A new centralised Data and Insights team was established in 2020, achieved through redeploying existing IT roles who have since developed the infrastructure and data governance. The team has since expanded through the merger of other existing data and performance roles across the Council in 2021.

Work has continued to develop integration between our Adult Social Care case management system and the Lancashire & South Cumbria Integrated Digital Care Record, known as LPRES. We are in the process of migrating our Mosaic system to an Enterprise (off-site) hosted platform with our supplier who will then upgrade the system to the latest version, enabling us to build the integration and exchange digital messaging and workflow with the wider NHS system in 2023. The upgrade will also provide an up to date platform for us to build in necessary Care Act changes in 2023.

These integration activities support our expected outcome set out in the digital strategy to develop ‘master data for our most common data sets to remove duplication’.

A Data Strategy has been developed and will be approved during 22/23. The strategy sets out how we will integrate, govern, protect and leverage Council data. We committed to increase data skills as part of our digital strategy and we have built a peer network of staff throughout the Council. The network shares learning and increases consistency around data design. In addition the central data team are now part of wider networks both regionally and nationally to learn and share best practice.

Work Stream 4 - Secure & Resilient Technology

During 2022 we recruited a Head of IT and appointed other senior IT roles in the team. Competition in the IT skills market is high and we continue with our strategy of ‘growing our own’ through offering internal opportunities and career development. Upping from one to two Heads of Service in the directorate (IT + Digital Transformation) was key as we had grown the portfolio and ambition since 2018. Given the financial pressures the Council has been continually under we had to cut our cloth accordingly and fit all this into existing budgets, which meant difficult structural choices. 

We've trained multiple colleagues in areas such as CISSP (security) and Strengths Based Leadership, we also introduced a new industry standard IT learning platform 'Pluralsight'. 

We've continued work to implement replacement core technologies around our Network, Unified Comms systems and move to the Cloud. All of these projects are complex and difficult. 2023 will see the projects come to fruition and we are working closely with 3rd parties to assist us on the programme. The amount of technology change we've had to progress alongside the challenges thrown up during Covid has been testing and the team past and present have really excelled. 

We migrated to a new enterprise based HR & Payroll system in 2021/22 which was a complex project that brought together HR, Digital and our IT Teams. The past 12 months have seen intense collaboration between these teams and our supplier to snag and complete delivery. The project also enabled us to implement Multi Factor Authentication. 

Next steps

We will continue to deliver planned work with existing investment across the four work streams and work in accordance with the six principles set out in the strategy;

• Customer Centred Design • Secure by Design • Cost and Quality Effective • Digital First and Inclusive • Data driven • Open, flexible and Cloud First

We will improve and strengthen IT Services and infrastructure, particularly in relation to the increasing international threat around Cyber Security. Over the next 12 months we will complete key digital and IT projects listed earlier. 

We will continue to develop our colleagues as well as widening advanced digital skills across the Council. After building our Service Design and Research capability our aim is to develop this thinking much deeper throughout Council departments, particularly around Policy Development. A number of forward thinking UK councils are already on with this and we will learn from the vanguard. 

Our Service Design, Customer and Business Operations teams will increasingly collaborate to deliver continuous service improvement and drive further channel shift. A number of services to customers will be proposed to move to digital first, to further reduce demand on services. Work already started to digitise Pest Control, Taxi Licensing and integration of Highways requesting / DCP will be completed. We will introduce a Councillor access as part of the DCP for Councillors to log, track and monitor case work across their wards.

We will re-develop measures for success and Council KPIs for digital as part of the wider performance management review for the 2023/24 municipal year.

Our Collaboration with departments across the Council, in particular with People’s Services, will continue to increase. This will mean alignment of some digital staff to important transformation areas and closer working with our technical leadership. We will co-develop digital plans in these areas aligned to the strategic work streams set out as part of the Council’s medium term financial plans.

Our partnership with leading Infrastructure providers such as City Fibre will deliver increased gigabit broadband and connectivity across (an already well connected) borough. This will increase competition and choice in the local commercial and domestic broadband market. The work will create tens of £billions of value over the life span of the new infrastructure. 

The journey and our ambition continues, driven by a strong purpose and the knowledge that our work is creating a positive impact.

All of this change has been delivered by a brilliant team at Blackburn with Darwen Council and I would like to thank the whole Digital & Business Change directorate for their continuing skill, effectiveness and tenacity. 'Arte et labore'.

By Paul on 15th Dec 2022
Paul is the Strategic Director of Resources at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.