Using digital technologies to put citizens first in 2030

Imagine this...the tech council

This imagining, from Richard Leeming, of a council in the future using digital technologies at the centre of everything it does, is one of the scenarios that we are exploring as part of the new municipalism pillar of our Post-Covid Councils project looking at the future of local government.

Global pandemics change history, as well as highlighting fault lines in society, they speed up changes that were happening anyway. This particularly applies to the use of digital technologies by local councils during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the public’s mind this means that council meetings no longer have to be held in the town hall, papers are emailed rather then printed, casework has switched to email and community meetings have been moved from draughty church and community halls to Zoom. However, behind the scenes, there has been feverish activity. The government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation has found that the pandemic accelerated the innovative use of data at a local level, with a range of data-driven interventions being launched or repurposed during the pandemic.

But can this energy be sustained and what will councils look like if it is?

Digital technologies impact on every single aspect of both the way services are delivered and how people interact with organisations. Just as Amazon customers expect their purchases to be delivered for free the next day, people expect the same level of service from the public sector. In the private sector companies that see digital as a bolt-on to ‘business as usual’ are going bust, while companies that are built around digital are prospering.

To consider what a council that has embraced the deeper realities of the digital revolution would look like we have gazed into our crystal ball and fast-forwarded to 2030. At Bletchley County Council the senior leadership team is focussed on delivering digital services and officers in charge of traditional departments report to them. These are the minutes of the open daily stand-up:

Scenario: Minutes from the open daily stand-up, Bletchley County Council

1. Bletchley County Council

MINUTES of the OPEN Daily Stand-Up held on Wednesday 12 June 2030 at 09.00 am.

This is a hybrid meeting, participants are noted as Present or Online.

These minutes have been transcribed and precised by an AI speech to text service and can be checked against delivery at the council’s record of the live stream of the meeting.

2. Present:

Standing Members:

  • Cllr Shaheen Sayed, Council Leader (Co-Chair) PRESENT
  • Cllr Will Blackwell, Cabinet member for data and service design ONLINE
  • Simon Ageh, Chief Information Officer (Co-Chair) ONLINE
  • Bill Loosemore, Director of User Needs and Service Design PRESENT
  • Claudia Sohoni, Director of Partnerships and Communities PRESENT
  • Nayeema Chaturvedi, Director of Data Security and Ethics ONLINE

Officers attending by invitation:

  • Priya Gupta, Head of Finance and Governance ONLINE
  • Paul Onwurah, Head of Housing and Leisure ONLINE
  • Claudia Wong, Head of Climate Change PRESENT
  • Richard Imafidon, Head of Social Care and Public Health PRESENT
  • Tilly Wright, Head of Education ONLINE
  • Professor James Fenton, Head of Place and Wellbeing ONLINE
  • Charlie Barley, Head of Comms PRESENT

3. Apologies

All members were present.

4. Verbal reports

4.1 Data dashboard

Cllr Sayed led the daily presentation from ‘Tricia’ the council’s data dashboard, https://www.bletchley.gov.uk/opendatadashboard prepared by the overnight data analyst.

Trends analysis of interactions with the council’s ‘Citizen Resolution Centre’:

  • Slight decline on the same period in 2029
  • There is a steady year on year rise in citizens using the council’s AI and digital automated products to use and pay for council services.
  • This is outweighed by the ongoing decline in citizens using the same products to raise issues around service delivery.
  • Both trends suggest that the value provided by the council continues to increase.
  • The number of citizens who prefer to interact using pre-digital methods remains steady at 7 per cent.

Headline data of citizens using the following methods to interact with the council’s ‘Citizen Resolution Centre’:

  • Citizens using voice or video via internet-connected device:
  • Answered and resolved by AI Bot: 27 per cent
  • Referred to human for resolution: 20 per cent
  • Citizens communicating by text via website or social media:
  • Resolved by AI Bot: 17 per cent
  • Referred to human for resolution: 12 per cent
  • Citizens using legacy comms methods:
  • Phone: 10 per cent
  • Email: 13 per cent
  • Letter: 1 per cent

Service headlines (All trends vs same period 2019):

  • Environment:
  • Bletchley carbon emissions: 2 per cent reduction
  • Bletchley Green Energy company: 5 per cent increase in power output
  • Housing:
  • Repairs resolved: 3 per cent increase in weekly repairs
  • Social housing voids: 2 per cent decrease due to AI demand matching service
  • Social Care
  • Citizens receiving social care using voice services
  • Early Help Services: 9 per cent increase
  • Children in Care: 13 per cent increase
  • Senior Citizens: 12 per cent increase
  • Planning:
  • Applications virtually approved: 20 per cent increase
  • Highways:
  • Potholes repaired: 7 per cent increase in potholes repaired within 24 hours of being reported
  • Parking fines issued by drone: 35 per cent increase
  • Leisure:
  • The council’s leisure service bookings data identified a persistent drop in use of the Barnsborough Leisure Centre. As a result officers carried out a consultation with past and present users of the centre, which discovered that citizens feel the centre is dilapidated and potentially dangerous. The leisure centre will be closed while an application is made to Sport England’s Fit For All programme for funds to refurbish it.

4.2 Chief Information Officer’s update

Simon Ageh gave a verbal report on the latest meeting of the City Region Data Interoperability taskforce. The eight councils represented on the taskforce have now reached in principle agreement on data models and ontologies to cover 72 per cent of the statutory services run by the councils. Work continues to identify which datasets can be published openly and which contain restricted or personal information. The taskforce is confident that its bid to MHCLG for funding to roll out the data approach nationwide will be successful.

Simon Ageh invited Priya Gupta, Head of Finance and Governance, to present a verbal report on negotiations with the joint union committee on updates to the council’s Agile Working Framework. The council has reached agreement on several aspects of the framework including:

  • Retraining of staff redeployed from legacy departments to the new multidisciplinary service delivery teams
  • Reward structure for staff linked to acquisition of new skills
  • Terms and conditions for remote and flexible working patterns
  • Redundancy package for back office and front-line staff whose jobs have been replaced by autonomous vehicles and service droids.

Ms Gupta reported that the threat of a strike by the joint unions remains on the table but that she is confident that it is receding.

4.3 Director of User Needs and Service Design’s update

Bill Loosemore updated the group on the the council’s Future Recycling Initiative.

  • The first three Autonomous Waste Collection Vehicles (AWCVs) with their accompanying service droid operatives have now completed their initial three-month trial.
  • The initial results from the trial confirm that deployment of the AWCVs will deliver a 13 per cent saving on the council’s environment budget combined with significant improvements to waste collection in public and communal spaces.
  • The trial has confirmed the hypothesis that overnight operation reduces interaction with human public and public space users. There have only been two near misses between the AWCVs and human beings, neither of which resulted in injury. Investigations showed that both humans involved were over the legal stimulant limits. Neverthleless, it has been decided to limit the maximum operational speed of the AWCVs to 15 miles an hour and increase the number of human operatives accompanying the vehicles to two, one inside the vehicle and one outside. Suggestions that the external operative should carry a red flag were dismissed as unhelpful.
  • At the same time the council’s new Autonomous Drone Litter Collecting Devices (ADLCDs) have contributed to a substantial reduction of littering in the council’s parks. Initial complaints that the ADLCDs were frightening children and elderly citizens have largely subsided after they were fitted with loudspeakers, though the council is dealing with an unfortunate incident where a citizen’s dog attacked a landed ADLCD and received severe cuts to its torso when it took off.
  • The average time taken to clear up a fly-tipping incident has dropped to 37 minutes thanks to the rollout of the AI powered fly-tipping detectors mounted on all the council’s lamp-posts. These use an algorithm to detect the sound of waste being dumped and a drone is dispatched to collect video evidence before the deployment of an AWCV.

Bill Loosemore invited Paul Onwurah, Head of Housing and Leisure to report on the council’s trial of blockchain technology to ensure the security of council service purchases. A six-week trial for garden waste collection permits saw a 72 per cent take-up rate with a 37 per cent drop in costs. The trial will now be extended to cover bike parking permits and service charges for social housing. Concerns remain about the environmental impact of the use of blockchain for this purpose.

4.4 Director of Partnerships and Communities update

Claudia Sohoni reported on the previous evening’s Park and Leisure Service hackathon. He demonstrated the latest iteration of the Green Bletchley app updated during the hackathon.

The most recent update adds the council’s dataset obtained during its environmental audit to existing datasets including biodiversity data from the Natural History Museum, air quality data published by the department for the environment, weather data from the Met Office, maps from Open Streetmap, movement data from the Department for Transport and personal location data to enable Bletchley Citizens to obtain a live reading of their personal impact on the environment. The app has been downloaded by 7 per cent of residents in Bletchley. Charlie Barley announced plans for a campaign designed to drive uptake to 25 per cent of citizens.

Ms Sohoni invited Claudia Wong, Head of Climate Change, to report on the latest ‘Cloud and Edge’ service negotiations with Amazing Web Services which aim to repatriate the council’s core datasets and AI algorithms to the council’s new server farm located in the former shipyards in Castlefract. By siting the datacentre underwater the council estimates it will save £4m pa in data transmission costs and make significant reductions in its carbon emissions. The project has also created dozens of highly skilled jobs in an area of significant deprivation.

4.5 Director of Data Security and Ethics update

Nayeema Chaturvedi gave a lengthy update focussing on a number of areas of concern.

The forthcoming meeting of Bletchley CC’s Digital Scrutiny Commission is following several controversial areas of inquiry.

  1. The council’s response to February’s cyber-attack which took all council services offline for four days and may have resulted in the deaths of seven citizens due to council services being unable to reach them or as a result of the transport chaos. The attack is being blamed for a potential loss of 2.7 per cent in economic output in Bletchley.
  2. Allegations that algorithms used by the council to make an initial decision on benefits applications are racially biased
  3. The council’s response to the recent discovery that face detection technology has been hard-coded into the firmware of CCTV cameras purchased by the council over the last 10 years by the manufacturers
  4. Concerns that the council’s decision to take part in the Electoral Commission’s trial into the use of Block Chain to ensure the security of the upcoming council elections will reduce turnout and impact on democracy.

Ms Chaturvedi invited Tilly Wright, Head of Education, to report on the Digital Inclusion and Ethics programme being rolled out to elected members before it is made available to all Bletchley citizens. More than three quarters of members have now taken both full days of training but it is not seen as likely that the final eleven councillors who have yet to do the training will be persuaded to do so. Instead they will be paired with members who have undergone the training and have volunteered for the role. Ms Chaturvedi reported on proposals to use incentives derived from behavioural economics to boost uptake among both elected members and citizens. It will be made mandatory for all newly elected members.

Conclusions

As these fictional minutes imply, councils considering the impact of digital technologies need to spend as much, if not more time thinking about behavioural and economic issues as they do about what type of servers they are procuring or their social media strategy.

A digital council of 2030 will be able to draw on a palette of digital technologies to create services for its citizens. It may be publishing its data openly; councils are already required to publish open bus data online, they may be using data standards created by Open Active to help citizens book activity sessions, or publishing open data about waste disposal:. They may be using voice technology and IoT to help senior citizens live independently or moving services to the cloud: or back to the Edge.

However, all of these are technologies are commodified, the interesting bit is how councils structure themselves to use them, a complete rethink may be required. Just as companies are replacing their chief executive officers with chief information officers, councils may have to do the same. Councils may need to place service design and agile team-working front and centre rather than rely on traditional structures of departments delivering services. They will need to collaborate more internally and externally and they may need to spend more time co-designing services with the citizens they represent.

Central government is already using this approach and encouraging local government to do the same. The Government Digital Service’s ‘Government as a Platform’ approach created common tools and services to be used across different government departments. The Local Digital Declaration developed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) encourages councils to take a common approach to developing shared services and collaborate with each other to take on tasks that are too big for an individual one to solve on their own. Meanwhile, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have taken this a stage further, suggesting (though they admit it’s ‘controversial’) that successful service delivery requires the creation of multi-disciplinary delivery teams. The logical endpoint of this is that a council that has fully embraced digital service delivery will need to completely reorganise itself.

And with their duty of care to the citizens they represent, councils will need to start paying serious attention to some of the downsides of digital technologies; the way they have created a surveillance economy, the dangers of cyber-attacks and data breaches, the way structural inequalities are embedded in artificial intelligence and machine learning and the rise of misinformation and disinformation amplified by bad-faith actors on social media. Councils could even take a proactive and imaginative approach to address some of these issues, based on their strengths – such as high levels of public trust – and create truly digital service such as personal data storage services.

Whatever a truly digital council looks like in 2030, it will probably be very different to a traditional council as they currently exist.