The Birmingham City Council Digital Approach

Dr Peter Bishop, Director of Digital & Customer Services at Birmingham City Council, responsible for delivering services to just over 1 million citizens and 11,000 staff, explains why the organisation’s Digital Strategy is the next big step forward. Read his recent blog below:

The council took back control of its ICT Strategy back in 2016, but it did not have all the levers to make that strategy a full reality.

In 2019, my core priority was focused on bringing the control of our outsourced IT services back in house enabling the council to deliver on its priorities rather than a third party.

That marked the real start of our digital transformation journey to put in place the significant building blocks that have supported our successful service transition and stabilisation.

This has brought the council back onto supported infrastructure and software platforms; providing a modern platform to support services such as in adults and children’s services and delivered a rationalisation and simplification of the council’s application estate including refreshing all the hardware/software and data centre services.

Combined with the introduction of new management tools for a modern workplace such as Office 365, it has enabled the delivery of a more agile and efficient service to the council and achieved efficiency savings through the ‘simplify, standardise and share’ strategic approach.

New digital and data services to citizens including a new digital platform (Brum Account), for local residents and businesses and GIS applications like MyBrumMaps, have all been delivered. Our commitment to the Local Digital Declaration in 2019 was a key part of sending the signal that we wanted to be part of the wider local government movement for change.

The new space that we are in means that we are nimble enough to start to innovate, embrace new delivery models of service delivery enabled by more agile technology and build our own digital platforms and services.

While to a certain extent plans to move forward in 2020 were put on hold due to the impact of Covid-19, it also demonstrated what we could achieve when we work differently and as a council respond rapidly to change, collaborating and working closely with our service leads to spin up new digital services quickly.

Technology and data were used to enable the council to shift to new digital ways of working, doing this collaboratively and quickly working in small agile teams across service areas and in the open.

Our new Digital Strategy marks the next step in our journey and ambition to be the best digital council – and I don’t use those words lightly. Digital transformation is one of the biggest opportunities we have of meeting the significant social, fiscal and political challenges that face us; the growing demand for our critical services and the raised expectation of citizens and businesses.

In my view, it’s going to be a real game changer for us. This is not a strategy about technology per se, though inevitably technology is something that we need to continually invest in.

The Digital Strategy is more than that; it’s about creating a truly digital council that will serve our citizens, businesses and employees better – that means setting a clear direction for the work needed to digitally enhance and transform our services and systems and doing this by mainstreaming a digital way of thinking and doing into our working practices and priorities.

This will enable services that are simple, easy to access, effective, joined-up, straightforward to use and more cost-effective to run.

This means we need to put users foremost and centre; delivering their needs quickly and iterating based on feedback and what the data and evidence is telling us. This will ultimately provide better outcomes for the communities and people that we serve and is what I stand by.

My role is to drive that ambition and help all my colleagues get behind this and ensure that our citizens and businesses of Birmingham get the value they expect and with the best experience possible, synonymous with those technologically sound-services of the internet era.

The Digital Strategy has been built doing just that – talking to and learning from other public sector organisations, on that journey, like Bristol, Greenwich and Hackney, some of whom were involved as part of an advisory board to test and validate our approach.

I wanted to make sure that we prioritise on what’s important and needed – hence the investment in doing a significant piece of user research and discovery with citizens, businesses, councillors and staff.

From this extensive research, we identified five overarching priorities:

  1. Create online services that are easy to use – this means offering more and better accessible digital customer services so that residents and businesses can get support earlier and faster, at their own convenience, for more things. We have already started to put this in practice with our new Customer Service programme that will see improvements to some of our most commonly-used online services, with the intention to deliver change quickly and incrementally.
  2. Improve our data and evidence-based decision making so that we have joined-up data and information that is trusted and accessible so that decisions are routinely made based on the data and evidence and our data programme is taking the lead on delivering this.
  3. Give our council teams the right digital tools to do their jobs so that staff can make the best use of technology to work efficiently, so we can help as many residents as possible with the budget we have. Our Fieldworkers platform, in development, is an example of how we are building common tools and platforms to support better working and collaboration that enables staff such as housing officers and social workers to focus less time on admin and resolving issues to spend more time with their customers.
  4. Build the council’s digital and data skills so we raise the level of digital and data skills and capabilities across the organisation to embrace the best practices for digital service design, operations and agile delivery that are citizen and business focused. I am planning a digital leadership course in spring for our senior leaders and members so that we can get everyone aligned on what digital is and build good digital practice at all levels and we are investing in new digital roles and capabilities that have not existed previously like user researchers and service designers.
  5. Build the best technology to support council services so that it is an enabler to support the directorates’ service ambitions and the smooth operations of the council

I was clear that we needed to be able to monitor and measure our performance and success and our delivery plan for 2022 has set out the metrics to do just that reporting through a new fit for purpose Digital Strategy Board that is in process of being set up.

As we enter this new phase, I am keen that we now move away from being seen as just an IT provider to the rest of the council to one where we can start to work more collaboratively in partnership with our service leads so that we prioritise, manage our demand, design and shape and build great digital services together; a place where we cultivate and nurture an environment of working in the open; grow our digital talent and become centres of excellence of good practice across our various digital and technology disciplines.

I want us to be a council that, along with others, plays in the wider local government sector to contribute, learn, share and work more cooperatively – to fail fast and build on success quickly for the greater good and are blogging about this at ‘all things digital’

I’m looking forward to the journey ahead!

The Digital Strategy 2022-2025 is due to be discussed by the council’s Cabinet on March 22.