Finding digital opportunities in unexpected places

I’m Liam and I recently joined Bucks CC as a digital lead and service designer. My job is to support the digital projects already underway, along with exploring new opportunities to fundamentally reimagine how services are delivered across the council, ensuring we meet both the needs of the user, and those of the business.

Don’t just ‘digitise’ an existing service

At a time when councils have to cut the costs of delivering services, residents and businesses are expecting the same, if not better, level of service. Using digital has been seen by many as the solution to both.

Traditionally, this has involved attempting to ‘digitise’ an existing service with a focus on the operational needs of the council rather than those of the people who use the service.

Quite often, this neither manages to achieve the savings or meet the user’s expectation.

The design of services

Recently, the focus has moved towards using digital approaches to design how services should be delivered. This approach includes:

  • Starting with the user
  • Understanding needs before finding solutions
  • Making small, iterative improvements
  • Breaking down silos and collaborating

As proven by organisations like GDS, this approach is an opportunity to deliver savings and deliver better outcomes for residents and council alike.

Spotting opportunities

Quite often, opportunities come out of high level board meetings, specifically looking into where digital has yet to be utilised to meet the latest round of saving targets.

It’s unfortunate that this is the focus, but we’re also lucky in knowing that using a digital approach, we can meet both the savings target and user’s expectation of the service.

Over time, these ‘untouched services’ are going to become harder to find, but during my short time at Bucks CC I’ve spotted a goldmine of opportunities.

The goldmine

When I started, the two projects that were handed over to me were:

  • Digital post room
  • Paperless office

Now I must admit, they didn’t fill me with excitement, in fact at first, I struggled. However, I very quickly realised that both these areas held the key to identifying so many other services across the council that had not yet started using digital or were only partially taking advantage of its capabilities.

Even after a brief look through postage data or printing volumes, I’ve uncovered so many new areas to explore. Ones that could really benefit from digital to help them save money and more importantly, meet user needs and expectations.


Furthermore, post and printing are services that stretch right across the council, so it turned out that these were the perfect projects to kick-off my role here at Bucks CC. They have allowed me to meet lots of people very early on and quickly apply one of the most important skills of a service designer, building relationships.

Through these new relationships, and developing knowledge of the teams and services in the organisation, I hope to continue the wave of culture change to put the user at the heart of ‘digitisation’.

New role, new opportunities

I have come to the end of my third week in a new role as Digital Lead and User Researcher in Children’s Social Care and Learning and I thought I would share some of the things I have learnt so far.

Beneficiaries, customers and stakeholders

Coming into the role I thought knowing our customers and the customer journey would be easy – children, right? And the great news is, everyone I have met is dedicated to improving the life of children in Bucks so we can tick this off as an immediate success.

However, the beneficiary of a service isn’t necessarily the customer. School admissions places children in schools but it is the parents who apply, go through the process and potentially appeal a decision. The fostering and adoption teams need to recruit new parents in order to deliver the service to the children in need of it. The Family Resilience team works with the entire family to protect the interests of the child.

In addition to these customers, we also have stakeholders. These are the people who interact with our services but not necessarily as a customer or beneficiary. Every day this business unit works with the police, medical professionals, headteachers and many more.  We work with the parents, guardians and carers of children. Our social workers and teachers providing frontline support are also integral stakeholders.

So why does it matter? As a council our customers are the residents of Buckinghamshire. In each business unit and service we dedicate ourselves to delivering services to a portion of our residents so we can focus our attention on them and provide the service they need. However, when we are looking at our communications and the processes surrounding our services, we need to be sure they are appropriate for the people we are interacting with at any given point. For example, working with the police will require data security and a level of technical language may be appropriate. Working with families in Family Resilience we need to make sure we use simple language and find accessible ways to share information, perhaps more visually than wordy.

It is easy to fall into a trap of assuming you know who your customers are when you start working with a new service. However, it is integral to take time to understand who the beneficiaries, customers and stakeholders are, their needs, their key issues and how you can work with them most effectively. This will play a key role in ensuring our communications, website content and service developments are successful.

The unknown knowns

When approaching new tasks or projects people often stop to consider three things:

  1. The known knowns (the things you are aware that you know)
  2. The known unknowns (the things you are aware that you don’t know)
  3. The unknown unknowns (what you aren’t yet aware that you don’t know which is always the biggest risk to any project)

Slavoj Žižek proposed that there is a fourth element that we should consider yet most overlook; the unknown knowns – the things we aren’t aware that we know.

In starting a new role you are always faced with the task of figuring out all the information everyone else is already working with – you don’t yet know what everyone else knows. Across the Council, and indeed across all of local government, we have an incredible amount of data about our residents, our services, our website visitors, our internal processes and costs. However we aren’t always very good at using this data effectively.

One of the key opportunities in Children’s Social Care – and across most of the council – is to data together, across services to understand the real opportunities. Each service knows who their customers are but if we can get an idea of how many customers are interacting with multiple services and the key impact that has, we can start tailoring our approach to create a truly successful service.

In social care, if we can understand the root causes of people needing our assistance, thresholds for asking for help and what combinations of support are the most effective then hopefully we can focus our resources on people at highest risk and prevent the social care threshold being reached. We have a lot of this information in isolation but it won’t create any hypotheses until all brought together. We are also missing a key piece of information (a known unknown) that will come from user research – qualitative data understanding people’s journeys through our services. I am hoping to work with the Business Insights and Intelligence team on this piece of work to create a strong foundation upon which our Early Help teams can start planning for the future.

While this piece of work is specific to social care, bringing data together across departments and teams to understand in greater detail our customers drivers and journeys will help us create resilience for a Council of the future. Mike Flowers presented a fantastic example that I previously wrote about, of how sharing data reduced deaths caused by fire in New York City. It can be genuinely life saving!

Digital: Beyond technology

The final point I wanted to make is what we mean by “Digital”. Over the last three weeks I have been asked several times what a “Digital Lead and User Researcher” does. On many occasions people have looked for pieces of technology or software to talk to me about.

You may notice that what I have written about so far in this post isn’t to do with iPads, Smart Watches, augmented reality or Pokemon Go. That is because Digital means so much more than those things. The definition of Digital that we in HQ Digital are working to is:

Applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the Internet-era to respond to people’s raised expectations.

Nearly half of people using the Bucks CC website are accessing it from a mobile or tablet device so we need to make sure our web content is fit for mobile. Having such easy access to the Internet has meant that people expect to be able to find information in a format that they can understand so that to a certain extent they can self serve. Not only does this apply to the size and shape of web pages but to the words we use. When reading on a mobile device you want information to be succinct and easy to digest.

People’s expectations are higher than ever before. We tend to expect speedy responses, open information and good customer service. Think about how your own opinion of shopping has changed since online shopping has become so easy and delivery so fast. If a shop can’t offer a unique experience, preferential price point or a friendly face then you might as well shop from the comfort of your own home. If we take this approach to our own services, are we providing interactions that people feel satisfied with or are they simply enduring them because we are the Council and they have to? We should be delivering the best experience we can but computers and smartphones are only a tool to use in this practice.

We cannot meet these raised expectations without ensuring our backend processes work in a way that can support this demand. If a customer interface looks cool and slick but the waiting time on a response or action is twice as long then we have not gained anything. When we look at Digital opportunities, we need to look at the end to end process. This is why when I have been meeting people I have asked what the key pressure points are in their service instead of asking where Digital is needed. By looking at where the key issues are, we can find opportunities to start developing the service in the culture, practice, processes and technologies of the Internet-era.

Next steps

I am so excited by the way I have been welcomed into the team and have been delighted to hear of all the work and initiatives already underway. I am looking forward to bringing a holistic and cohesive view to the information available and role of the services within the business unit to ensure we have a resilient business unit that our customers enjoy interacting with.

How our use of technology is changing, and what it means

Ofcom has published its annual review of Britons’ use of digital technology. It explains how our use of technology is changing – and I’ve analysed five key facts and what that means for us in local government.

1. Is there anyone left to connect to the internet?

Nine out of ten homes have access to the internet, with almost no change in the last two years. Just 2% say they are likely to take it up over the next year. The battle for digital adoption is on the 10% who don’t want to, or don’t see the point.50% of those without home broadband say they don’t need it.

2. Smartphones rule

We’ve explained that there’s been a 45% increase in use of a smartphone on in the last year. UK internet users aged between 16 and 34 years old consider it “the most important device” for internet access.

People spent an average of 81.8 hours online in March 2016. The average time spent online by a smartphone internet user was 59.6 hours, noticeably more than the average time spent online by internet users on laptops and desktops (30.7 hours).

3. Use of government websites

There has been no change in the proportion of people accessing government websites – steadily at 35%.

4. Instant messaging is surging – social networking stagnant

The proportion of people using IM services such a WhatsApp is up from 28% to 43%, and photo/ video messaging (MMS) has risen to more than a fifth of adults in a given week. Email takes up just 5% of time spent on media activities for 16-24s vs 16% for messaging.

Facebook and Twitter use has fallen slightly in the last year – although the majority of the population still uses Facebook weekly. However, Facebook Messenger is used by 22m Brits, and Whatsapp 17m.

5. Ageist stereotypes must be broken down

Of people over 65 years old:

  • 76% say being online has made life easier
  • 42% would feel out of touch if they were unable to access the internet
  • 47% say that because of the internet, they don’t feel bored

So what does that mean for us?

  1. There’s a hearts and minds task to reach the 10% of people with no intention of using the internet. Training courses help, but truly showing the value of the internet remains a critical task – and a social good
  2. We’re right to be mobile first in our approach to content and design – but we can do more to consider the opportunities of the device being ‘context-aware’ (eg an alert when you’re near a library to explore the new Harry Potter?)
  3. We’ve got the audience we’ve got. Our job is to better serve them
  4. We’re not part of conversations on social media messaging portals – but we’re also not using them in work (in the main). Why not?
  5. Older people can use the internet and get real value from it. We mustn’t exclude them from our thinking and design considerations

If you’d like to discuss this more, let me know and we’ll put on a show & tell.