Sustaining public services through the Covid-19 crisis with transformative IT

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A timely digital transformation program has helped Birmingham City Council to keep serving a community of 1.1 million through the Covid-19 crisis. Its director of digital and customer services, Dr Peter Bishop, explains how.

As the Covid-19 global pandemic has brought unprecedented levels of disruption, organizations of all shapes and sizes have battled to keep running amid prolonged periods of lockdown. And the vast majority have turned to digital technology, wherever possible, to help keep the wheels turning. 

One stand-out example is Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe. In 2016, it embarked on a far-reaching digital transformation program — and now, in the midst of the pandemic, this has proved more valuable than anyone could possibly have imagined. 

The program — which is still ongoing and not scheduled for completion until at least the middle of 2021 — has involved a raft of technology-powered enhancements, including the enablement of a flexible, mobile workforce, simplified access to services for both end-users and citizens, and the integration and smarter use of multiple datasets. Underpinning this has been a large-scale shift to cloud.

Without these advances, the local authority — which serves the 1.1 million residents of the UK’s second city — would have found its operations severely impaired during the crisis, says Dr Peter Bishop, its director of digital and customer services. “The council would have been on its knees if it hadn’t been for the work that we set in train,” he claims. “Nobody could have predicted the fact that we could still run our business while we’re in the middle of coronavirus.”

With the benefit of hindsight, he explains how the transformation program, which is focussed on supporting and enabling key council outcomes, has paid huge dividends during the crisis. 

Mobilizing the workforceBishop points to how almost all of its 11,500 employees have been able to continue working thanks to the empowerment of an agile and mobile workforce that can largely operate from anywhere. This has proved crucial during the UK’s lockdown period, which has prevented all but the most essential workers from leaving their homes. 

“We mobilized a significant proportion of our ‘business-as-usual’ in 2019 — so we effectively put 8,000 people into agile working,” says Bishop. “And we accelerated the final 15% [when the crisis began] so that we could deal with the self-isolation challenge.”

This involved, for example, the use of Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud applications suite, as well as online collaboration and video conferencing with Microsoft Teams. It also meant unlocking the work phones of employees, such as those in social services, to allow them to use a range of apps and services that enable them to undertake work from any location, and in a more efficient manner — thus improving outcomes for users and citizens alike. “We used to give our people a mobile phone and lock down its scope [to a large degree],” says Bishop. “By opening them up, we’ve now opened a lot of the flexibility about how people work.”

No turning backHaving facilitated such transformation — and then accelerated them almost overnight with the announcement of the UK’s lockdown — Bishop believes there will be no going back to former ways of working once the crisis is over. 

“I think absolutely we will not return,” he says. “For example, we could effectively shut one of our big administration buildings now because everybody is mobile.”

He gives another example, this time regarding printed documents. “We still have to send letters about council tax, revenues and benefits,” he explains. “But as well as initiatives to drive more electronic communication, we can also use ‘press to post’ where a worker can just press ‘print’ on their PC [at home] and a document will get printed and posted automatically [from a central resource]. It’s about accelerating a lot of that. So it’s at least one silver lining.”

“Everything we talk about and do has got to enable us to help make a difference to our residents every day.”

Birmingham’s digital transformation program is focused around creating what Bishop describes as “a truly digital council” with the purpose of supporting the municipality’s top six priorities: children, housing, jobs, skills, delivering the 2022 Commonwealth Games (one of the world’s largest multi-sport events), and playing its part in tackling the global climate emergency.

Some of the statistics that lie beneath these reveal the daunting scale of the challenges: 46% of Birmingham’s residents are under the age of 30; around 40% of its children are classified as living in poverty; there is a need to build 89,000 new homes, while there is only space for just over 50,000; unemployment (pre-coronavirus) stood at 9.3%, (the UK national rate was 3.7%); and the Commonwealth Games, with a budget of £778 million ($962m), is anticipating ticket sales of a million.

As if all that didn’t create enough of a stretch, the council was mandated by central government to find £750 million ($900m) in budget savings during the past 10 years and has been tasked with cutting a further £60 million ($74m) in the next four.

However, despite this — and the more recent challenge of the coronavirus crisis — the municipality continues to deliver more than a thousand different products or services to its citizens. 

Because of the scale and complexity of the challenge, Bishop believes a single ‘one size fits all’ digital strategy is generally impossible, relying instead on applying a set of core principles to all their activities. “Everything we talk about and do has got to enable us to help make a difference to our residents every day,” he says. “And you’ve got to be able to drive those core principles through leadership, both top-down and bottom-up, to help get the improved outcomes.” 

This, alongside enabling the workforce to operate more flexibly and efficiently, largely boils down to the effective management and use of data. Bishop gives the example of how he is moving to an integrated, cloud-hosted ERP and HCM solution – where, previously, a large part of the council’s budgeting was undertaken using spreadsheets. As he points out, with so much going on, it’s vital that the organization gets the basics like this right. “If we can’t manage our HR and finance data then we’re in trouble,” he says.

“So if we think about that from a council employee perspective, it’s about having the right tools for the job, it’s about having the right data and information to hand so that they can make informed decisions,” he adds. 

“We want real-time council finances. And we want a tool that budget managers don’t have to spend an age learning before they see benefits. We need one dataset that is integrated and that people can absolutely rely on as one source of truth. And that is about us becoming a user-centric and data-driven digital service.”

Cloud-enhanced futureBishop describes this complexity of the challenge as “untangling spaghetti,” which is why it is taking several years to complete and still has at least 18 months to run, despite the enforced acceleration since the advent of the coronavirus crisis.

One of the key enablers has been a large-scale move to cloud services, deploying a mix of Microsoft and Oracle offerings, while some of the council’s legacy apps — of which there are around 460 — are likely to remain on-premise for some time to come. Bishop is realistic about this approach, as he’s no ‘cloud for cloud’s sake’ evangelist. Instead, he is happy to maintain the hybrid model the organization has settled on. “Not all of our applications are suitable for full cloud adoption, and not all of the providers can even handle it,” he says.

“The drivers are about agility, skills, capability and moving our IT service from a traditional IT provider to one that is focused on data and information,” he explains. By not running the servers in its own data center, concerns about application upgrades, and scheduling and management of the infrastructure become the responsibility of a cloud provider, enabling the council to deploy resources more effectively and make the most of its data assets.

He also highlights how user access has been able to continue largely uninterrupted throughout the coronavirus crisis, thanks to the cloud solutions in place. “If this were a year ago, I would have forced the best part of 9,000 people to use our own infrastructure to effectively communicate to each other, [albeit] with our firewalls and bottlenecks.

“But now, services like Office 365 and our cloud infrastructure have reduced the dependence on our network massively. That’s been hugely transformative.”

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