Finding resources when you haven't any. A funding story.
Below is the transcription from the talk delivered by Rugby Borough Council's Chief Officer for Digital and Communications, Mike Connell, during Digital Leaders Week 2022.
How do we solve a problem without the resources to do so? Not enough time or internal skills to investigate, design and produce a solution? Rugby Borough Council lead a Local Digital Fund application to further develop Digital Waste Services using low code alongside partner organisations. This is the story of partners coming together to solve a shared problem.
Hello and welcome to my talk on Finding Resources when you haven’t any – a funding story.
My name is Mike Connell, and I am the Chief Officer for Digital and Communication here at Rugby Borough Council.
Firstly, to help out the context of this story, a little about Rugby.
Located near the centre of England and stretching from Coventry to the west and to the county borders of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire in the east, the Borough of Rugby is excellently placed for both local economic growth within the West Midlands as well as benefitting from the impact of growth in businesses focussing on logistics. The Borough benefits from excellent transport links with easy access to key motorways with the M6, M1 and M45 directly on Rugby’s doorstep and rail services offering residents quick alternative commuting options to Birmingham just over 20 minutes and London within 50 minutes. . The borough has seen increased 6% growth in population over the last 5 years and currently covers the town of Rugby and 40 rural parishes, with a total population of 108,935 and covering an area of 88,000 acres. The Borough is one of the fastest growing in England with new growth in Houlton, Eden Park and Cawston.
A little now about Rugby Borough Council
Rugby is the primary local authority for the Borough, providing services such as waste collection, housing, leisure and culture, and development control. The Council is an active partner in the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Coventry, Warwickshire and Hinckley and Bosworth joint committee for economic growth and prosperity and is a non-constituent member of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Representation with these bodies helps to facilitate benefits for the borough including investment in jobs and infrastructure.
The borough of Rugby has 16 wards and the Council consists of 42 Members and is a Conservative controlled authority.
Enough background – on to the talk.
I’ll prelim this with some encouraging and sobering words. I’m not about to tell you anything you don’t already know. I’m not here to give you brilliant insight and reveal master secrets to solve everyone’s resource and finance struggles. I’m just here to tell a story. However, it’s a positive story about how we can actually do this together, not as a pep talk, but as a reality.
We, like many other authorities regardless of size, have been feeling the frustration of a hugely positive culture change and move towards more innovative working tied in with so called business as usual work and the ever increasing demands from central government, particularly related to the pandemic. To be able to have time to look up from our keyboards and towards the horizon is a necessity now, but with the best intentions in the world, how do we act on, resource and fund an identified transformation or change project? The answer is to not try it alone.
One of the MANY MANY discoveries which have come out of the pandemic is that we as local authorities have much the same problems, and yet seem to be insular in how we solve those problems. Sure, if we knock on each other’s doors and have locally established networking groups then we’re all very happy to share information and solutions which have been developed internally in response to challenges, but we don’t seem so good at coming together prior to that to actively identify a transformation, discover a solution and then turn that into a reality together.
However, this story is just that, and I’m going to tell it in the hope that we and others don’t make the same mistakes time and time again.
Rugby Borough Council had, over a period of three years, developed a digital waste system which included integration with their somewhat lightly used external Waste Management System. The Waste Management System included details of the Garden Waste Subscription Service, assisted bin collections and no other data despite its capabilities. The system had been built by two IT staff members, neither of who were employed as developers, and simply had an internal drive and capability to make processes and customer interactions better.
The system very capably used the external Waste Management System APIs to ensure a property requesting a Garden Waste Subscription could join the scheme efficiently and purely self service. Which is what we’re all looking for, right? Self service benefits everyone involved – lower cost, available 24/7 and efficient! Bin day lookups were also attached to the Waste Management System, and a bulky waste process was developed suing the Microsoft Graph API to interact with Office 365 calendars and deliver a simple daily report to waste services with the 8 pickups they would be undertaking that day. Which was naturally then printed off and handed to the bulky waste crew. A variety of other services were jury rigged together using the systems which the two developers knew about and the system trundled along, providing a good customer experience but suffered greatly from having a multitude of links in a chain which could possibly fail, bringing each service down as it did so. Innovative, but unreliable. Created by people with passion, but restricted by the tools they had to hand and skills they personally possessed.
And stepping away from this particular story for a second, that’s sort of the element to take from this. This isn’t a story about a couple of nerds who fabbed something together, this is more a story about an identified need which was then dealt with using only the resources that we thought we had available, and we didn’t think about finding help to be able to deliver the solution, and also help everyone else at the same time!
Back to the story, and fast forward to 2021 when our attention was drawn to the local digital fund round five.
At this point Rugby Borough Council had moved to a Digital Experience Platform which combined forms, integrations, customer services management and website capability and shared this platform with a variety of other local authorities. Bearing in mind the harrowing experience we had (and were still having) with a cobbled together waste system, the idea was raised about solving the problem with a more long term plan. After all, Rugby had gone through the pain of the discovery and created a solution as best they could, but why couldn’t we take our experience and knowledge and find a way for the problem to be solved for many partners and even beyond? Surely this was something which could benefit local authorities far and wide?
Working as a lead authority, Rugby Borough Council, alongside partners Dorset, Royal Borough of Kingston, London Borough of Sutton and Northumberland County Council came together to submit a bid to the DLUHC Local Digital Fund entitled “Exploring the use of an open source low code digital platform to develop user centred digital services for Waste Services”.
Our vision was to ensure no one else had to go through the pain that Rugby went through and to be able to share all our findings, analytics, discovery and code with whomever wanted access to it. There seemed no reason for us to hold this information to ourselves. We were, as a group, and individually, absolutely bought into the Local Digital Declaration. Of which I will quote: “Never before has it been possible to collaborate so effectively, to deliver services across so many boundaries, to interrogate our data so insightfully, to realise such great efficiencies, and to reshape public services for the benefit of all while retaining local sovereignty.”
But possibilities don’t mean anything if you don’t have the time, resources or capability to do the work. And to be absolutely clear about this, if the LDF funding had failed, this work would not have been done in such a short time period.
Once more stepping briefly away from the story… Yes, if the bid had been rejected my full intention would have been to pursue it as a partnership and see whether we could move things forward between us, sharing our resources to solve a shared problem, but we all know that in reality what would have happened would have been a slow shared process. I and the partners involved really do believe in shared working to achieve things, and it would have been done, but the impetus and freedom granted to us by being able to fund an external company to undertake the work alongside having our own work funded to backfill simply made the project a swift possibility, which is what everyone wanted and needed.
Back to the story, the submission was shortlisted and an interview process was undertaken. If anyone would like more information on the interview process, help with putting together a bid or any more detail on the process in general, I’m very happy to help.
To our somewhat surprise, the bid was successful and the project was go. And when I say go, I mean it. There was no time to reconsider – it moved forward at pace. And this is what the freedom of being able to fund resources directly for a project gives us all. Swift action to a shared outcome.
As it stands we are now nearing the end of the sprints within the project and I urge you all to visit wasteservice.digital to read all about the specific waste service project and benefit from the resources available there.
But this talk isn’t about that specific project. This talk is about the possibilities which come from us acting together, with or without funding. And to provide clarity, I think it’s important to note that it has opened my eyes up WHY beyond the Local Digital Fund as far as funding opportunities are concerned. There is funding out there! Not only that, but if this has proved anything it’s that it’s vital to be READY for when that funding is available.
As a group, we were lucky to exist on the same platform and recognise we shared the same issue and we as Rugby happened to be actively trying to solve that issue.
Once we come out of this project, one of my jobs is going to be coming together as a leadership team and identifying projects which are either in the pipeline and we’re awaiting resources to undertake, or a wish list of transformations. The next thing I’m going to do is engage with the partners we currently have on the same platform, plus our neighbouring authority partners and any networking partners I can lay my hands on so we all start sharing! It’s not going to take an enormous amount fo work for everyone to be talking, so when an opportunity comes up we’re in a position to take it on together. And taking things on together will greatly increase the chances of it being taken on at all. Whether it’s to apply for funding, combing a project to make the most of UKSPF, shouting up when we are about to start work on something to see if there is interest in helping out, and essentially stop being so insular with our transformations and processes.
There has to be a better way for us to make things easier. I’ve been asking myself the question numerous times through the pandemic – why isn’t there a repository of processes for this myriad of things the government has asked us to do? There’s only so many ways something can be done and we all need to move quickly!
What if we brought teams together to produce a package of Granicus/Jadu/Digital Place/whatever forms which expedited the Grants process and then made them available to one and all. Not only as specific e forms, but as examples which can then be replicated in any forms/process system? Share information to save us all time and effort!
Is anyone else looking at integrating Gov Pay into their Capita IMS? Or already undertaken the work? Anyone out there using PowerBI to track their Climate Challenge? What sources are you using? Should we maybe line up the air quality hardware so we can sync it up and compare? Anyone else watching the RIPS and BOPS project and wondering how it can be integrated into their current systems? If so, let’s get sharing!
Yes, it’s a big dream to think that many voices nationally might line up, but if we can start with the networks we’ve already got then great things can happen and we can help each other out. Insularity helps no one, and the realisation of that has taken way too long to sink in.
Let’s all talk more, reach out more and we can do more, because we won’t have less like we think we have, we’ll collaboratively have way more than we ever thought.
Thanks so much for listening and I URGE everyone on this call to look once again at the Local Digital Declaration, to think innovatively not just in the work which is being done but how to get that work achieved, and to make time to talk to your peers. Join a slack channel, jump on the Microsoft LRG champions, get together at those show and tells and attend that Local Digital roadshow…
Do not hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and thank you for your time.