Work shadowing: a chance to understand, time to learn

By Liz Connick, Senior Information Officer, Buckinghamshire Family Information Service

Everybody’s talking Digital Transformation and here in Buckinghamshire County Council that may mean different things to different people. In order to gain experience and insight I spent a couple of days work shadowing Matthew Cain and his Team at Digital HQ so that I can learn and develop within my current role as Senior Information Officer for the Buckinghamshire Family Information Service.

Day One: As Head of Digital, Matthew is leading the Council transformation to be digital first, driving the day to day digital strategy and working across a wide variety of disciplines – social, content and technology. This involves engagement with colleagues across all levels which entails a regular plethora of meetings, several of which I attended with Matthew today. This really brought home to me the breadth of Matthew and his teams involvement in a wide variety of projects across the entire council and how as one organisation we have a complex spider’s web of systems, software and processes to navigate.

What became evident is that as Head of Digital you need a broad understanding of technicalities, the ability to focus colleagues on the customer experience or ‘customer journey’, a good understanding of what will work then the ability to translate, design and build. You also need great communication skills to be able to talk to people at all levels of the organisation who have different levels of digital literacy and expectations.

Day Two: Today, I spent some time with the Digital Team, Colin and Becky, Digital Content Officers and who both have 12 plus years’ experience with the Council. They talked me through their key projects they are working on, for example, Maintain My Street, Find My Child a School Place, Complaints and Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and Firmstep.-In the afternoon, I attended a workshop with representatives’ from User Zoom, a Customer and User Experience Research and Analytics Platform which the Digital Team will be using in the forthcoming year. I also had the opportunity to meet Sarah (Digital Content Officer) and Millie (Intern) and team Liz

After the end of two very interesting days with the digital team what do I understand about the words ‘Digital Transformation’?

I understand it to be the process for shifting Buckinghamshire County Council to new ways of working and thinking by the use of digital, social, mobile and emerging technologies. This involves the need for us all to think differently, adapt and change our service models and look at how we can increase the use of technology to improve the experience of our internal and external customers i.e. employees, customers, suppliers, partners and stakeholders.

What is the key learning point that I will take away with me after these two days with the Digital Team?

The key to creating service value is to focus on customer value. Truly understanding the needs and preferences of our customers, as well as their behaviour and attitudes ‘the customer journey’, is essential for service strategy.

Thank you to Matthew and his team. I still think that our Head of Digital is an off spring of Duncan Bannatyne! Though I didn’t share this information with him on my visit …
Duncan Ballantyne

The power of data to reform public services

Monday 20th May was the start of London Tech Week, a week long festival of live events celebrating tech innovation. Innovation isn’t just for the tech giants, such as Google and Apple, or the Silicon Roundabout start-ups. There is a lot going on in the public sector, and in particular Local Government. That is why I went to the event hosted by the London Borough of Camden titled “The Power of Data to Reform Public Services” to find out what other people in the public sector have been doing and what we can learn from them.

The introduction from Councillor Theo Blackwell, Cabinet member for Finance, Technology & Growth laid out the key challenges for local government. In particular he pointed to the shift from incremental budgeting to outcomes based budgeting where we are required to align our increasingly limited resources to achieve the necessary goal. This is forcing us to be innovative and to challenge the way we work as Councils and local government as a whole. A key way we can challenge what we do is by realising how much data we hold as public service providers and how we can use it to work more effectively.

Lessons from New York City – Mike Flowers

In the first session we heard from Mike Flowers, Chief Analytics Officer at Enigma, formerly Chief Analytics Officer of New York City. Mike started by pointing out that cities (and local government) hold tonnes and tonnes of data but they don’t necessarily know it.However, just having this data isn’t enough. It only becomes a valuable asset if you use it in a productive way. Mike told of his experiences  sharing data between departments in the city resulting in reduced fire risks, improved pro-active measured and more coordinated emergency response resulting in a reduction in deaths caused by fire in the city.

There were obstacles in convincing people to share their data with other departments. To overcome this, Mike and his team manually input data into spreadsheets and passed it on to prove the concept. Once the concept has been proven then digital solutions can be explored. This was a key lesson to learn that we often overlook; data is more important than digital. Similarly, you should only use data if it is relevant and useful. Mike encouraged us all to constantly ask “does analytics bring anything to this problem?”. If the answer is no then move on, don’t waste time and money forcing data that won’t have any impact.

The other key lesson was creating political sustainability in an environment governed by a political body that can change every few years in an election. In Mike’s experience the answer was for the fire service to own the service as they are a non-political permanent branch of the City. More generally, however, Mike advised that the key to driving a project forward is to have a dedicated owner of the problem you are trying to address. This may be in the form of a service manager or a product owner but it needs to be a person who can take responsibility and drive the project forward.

The final takeaway from Mike was that data insight is worthless if it doesn’t trigger action. The example he shared was that you can analyse the best place to park an ambulance in an emergency but at some point you actually have to move the vehicle! A more detailed account of his experiences and lessons learnt can be found here.

A Data Powered Revolution – Janet Hughes, GDS

Next on the bill was Janet Hughes to talk about the next steps in a data powered revolution. She started by noting that the main reason there is a perceived revolution occurring now is simply because there is more data becoming more freely available allowing us to build services using it.

A fantastic example of this is GDS’ Verify service. As residents and consumers we are seeking to access more and more services online. However, it is difficult to prove that someone tapping on a keyboard is who they say they are. GDS work with eight different companies to verify your identity using a wide range of available data including driving licence, mobile phone contract, birth and marriage information, charitable giving etc. The service is made resilient and inclusive by working with different companies and using many different types to data.

There are ten government services currently using Verify but GDS are looking for Local Authorities to get involved and start using it for their own services. It is an incredibly exciting development and will make many digital services a lot more streamlined and easy to access.

Using Data Better – Sarah Dougan, Deputy Director Camden Public Health

The next session was kicked off by Sarah Dougan telling us about the ways data has been used successfully in Islington. There were three key points to take away:

1. We need a to take a holistic approach to data, looking at the bigger picture. This may mean looking across boundaries which will require us to work with our neighbours. Boundaries tend to be meaningless to residents who may travel through multiple constituencies in a day. Our delivery of services and information should reflect this reality if we are able to do so through collaboration.

2. We need to ask the right questions. There are generally key themes to follow – e.g. residents, place based information, business information – and asking the right questions under each is key to making the most of your data.

3. We need to upskill our workforce to do more with data. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be an analytics expert. Some people in your organisation may be data experts but it is important to upskill others to understand what questions they need to ask and to whom they need to ask them to get the answers they need.

An interesting comment that stuck with me is that the main reason behind Islington’s success is that the drive has come from the business, not from digital services. All too often we rely on the digital team in our organisation to show us the way but it is the responsibility of each of us to make data led solutions work.


The London Journey – Andrew Collinge, City Hall & Eddie Copeland, Nesta

Having heard about New York, Central Government and the story of one London Borough, it was time to hear about the vision for the whole of London. London is very different to New York. It is made up of 32 Borough Councils plus the City of London all with their own powers. New York on the other hand has five Boroughs but they only have minimal executive functions; decision making power lies with the Mayor of New York. This means that London faces a bigger challenge when it comes to collating its data.

The City Data Strategy was launched in March 2016. It is centred around recognising City Data as part of the infrastructure. The strategy is centred around six themes:

  1. Build and operate an efficient City Data Market
  2. Better organisation of City Data is needed if it is to have impact
  3. The value of City Data must be recognised
  4. Build public acceptance through security, privacy and trust
  5. Active governance
  6. A technology road map based on open standards and flexible interfaces

More information on the strategy can be read here but it all comes down to recognising the value of our data and using it effectively. We need to transcend our boundaries that aren’t meaningful to residents in order to make good use of data. As Andrew and Eddie both iterated; we have all the pieces of the jigsaw in the box, we just need to collaborate to put it all together.

A Success Story – Sherry Coutu CBE, Founders4Schools

Sherry Coutu gave the final talk of the day and an excellent example of a simple way to use data for high impact.

Founders4Schools is a charity that connects local business leaders to schools giving pupils the opportunity to learn about different careers available to them. They use publicly available data from LinkedIn, Companies House and their own data generated through reviews to create a resilient database of local practitioners. It is a great example of bringing different sources of data together to provide a meaningful service.


The data we hold as public sector organisations is an asset if we use it effectively. However, it is only effective once it triggers action. To make the most of it and achieve the highest impact for our residents we need to collaborate with our neighbours. but most importantly, we need to be asking the right questions to figure out which problems we should be solving with our data in the first place.

Shop4Support user experience – Aylesbury Library

We have been live with our new E-commerce platform,Shop4Support for just over 3 months now. 16 services were lifted from Zipporah and recreated within Shop4Support. Whilst doing so we have created efficiencies for both the customer and the business such as upload facilities, guest checkouts and combining products into one using drop down menus. Since go live over £190k worth’s of orders received and nearly 200 accounts active.

Continuing improvement

Feedback on the new system has been positive from services but to ensure we were still meeting our customer’s needs I took to the library! Armed with an IPad and the aim to improve the customer’s journey.  This was a valuable opportunity to see in real time the customer’s journey to access our products. The library offered a wide range of testers from differing ages, 17 – 60 and backgrounds. Each asked to find a specific product and navigate themselves.


Several results within the testing became consistent among users. The most insightful was how customers accessed the product information on the BCC site. All used the search bar or A-Z. Not one customer routed themselves through the main content navigation. Highlighting the importance of keeping these routes updated and relevant.  I also saw how essential high level product information/key words are required throughout the journey. Users recommended higher level detail within the results to help distinguish the relevant options. Once on the products users commented that the journey to purchase was smooth, with prominent “Pay now” buttons and easy to navigate checkout. 

Following the user experience my next step is to ensure all product details/results are relevant and at a high level. I have already re-mastered product detail for Street Works and plan to adopt the same high level formulae to remaining services. I also plan on touching base with Shop4Support to ensure our online journey remains consistent, regardless of device.

For anyone thinking of user experience I would highly recommend the library. It’s a great location to touch base with our customers, face 2 face and really understand their needs.


Firmstep – the way forward

It’s been 6 months since the launch of our customer platform, Firmstep. We’ve been working hard to build new forms and processes both internally and externally. But have we achieved what we set out to do? How do we go forward?

We had the pleasure of spending some time with Hilary Jones, Customer Ambassador for Firmstep, previously Deputy Chief Executive at Scarborough Borough Council, leading on the successful implementation of Firmstep into many parts of their organisation.

Building the right team

At the start of the project, they made a ‘virtual team’, people with a passion to improve, innovate and with the skills to provide an excellent customer experience. The team would consist of colleagues in ICT, Comms, Customer Services, a service area representative (to provide an independent eye), a web developer and the Firmstep process builder. Even after the implementation project has finished, they discovered this team is key to taking the system further, realising its potential and helping the organisation benefit from the savings it could provide.


Scarborough, although a smaller organisation, tackled similar issues that we have. With multiple systems for similar tasks, they saw easy benefits from using Firmstep to replace these systems. Not only from reducing spend on annual fees, Firmstep allowed their processes to be more visible and giving more customisation in how a process is built. Rather than the very static layout of a prebuilt system, they could rebuild the system as they want it, looking at what was and wasn’t working and improve it.

Looking forward

Hilary’s key role currently is to look at how Firmstep can support their customers, to provide a central resource for best practice, examples and detailed guides. With this resource, councils can build more sophisticated processes and with the shared knowledge, learning from others what worked best in similar situations.

It was fascinating to hear how another council had tackled the project, both in the run up to go live but also going forward and the challenges they faced. We’ve still got a lot more to do and we haven’t quite yet achieved our goals, but this has given us plenty of food for thought and extra motivation to take things forward to keep improving digital services for our users.