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.

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