The Operational Service Lead – ICT presented the report which outlined the digital strategy for the next three years. Members were asked to provide feedback to be put forward to the meeting of Cabinet on 5 April 2017.
Councillor Liddiard considered the report to be good and agreed that the strategy was very aspirational. He queried whether there were any examples of similar strategies proven to work within the Country. The Committee heard that there were many strategies though the proposed model was more comprehensive as Thurrock had elected to bring everything together. There were many Local Councils currently on the journey to deliver similar outcomes though the proposed Strategy was towards the more ambitious end of the scale.
Councillor Liddiard agreed with the numbers but was unsure it could be delivered within 3 years. Members were advised the Strategy in reality covered 3 years and beyond. The aim was to drive agility and so there was a need to keep the strategic roadmap going beyond the strategy length.
Councillor Liddiard highlighted that within his work in the local community hub in his ward about 90% of the residents were unable to use the internet, even on their phones and required a high level of support from the hub volunteers. He expressed scepticism that these and similar residents could be converted and asked whether there was an opportunity to work with the community hub volunteers and staff in customer services in a different way and change the mechanisms in place to make life easier for all concerned. The breakdown of services people required assistance for, in his experience, was 70% for housing, 20% for benefits and 10% for council tax and other minor issues; he wondered whether it might be better to focus on those areas people needed most.
The Operational Service Lead – ICT agreed that officers were cautious not to bake exclusion into the strategy and it was necessary that residents could get in contact and engage in the best way for them. There would be digital buddies and people like the hub volunteers to help make the technology simpler. In order to ensure residents engaged the digital experience would need to be better than the traditional experience. As for focusing on key areas, the aim was to develop platforms that worked across a range of areas and to avoid individual point systems, though there would be prioritisation of service areas as the strategy unfolded.
Councillor Maney observed that he felt the report was somewhat light on delivery as to how the ideas would be implemented. He hoped that, when it was referred to Cabinet, Cabinet would look clearly at the delivery of the strategy otherwise it might come back to Overview and Scrutiny Committees in the future. The Committee heard that Councillor Maney’s comments were reasonable but the intention had been an outcome focused strategy to offer a degree of flexibility compared to a full delivery plan. Immediate delivery plans would be put together to manage the strategy and there would be strict Governance in place.
Councillor Watkins expressed approval for an aspirational strategy and admitted that it would be very impressive. He asked if there were any risk that the technology might not deliver as hoped with residents who might not use it to its full potential, and asked for additional background information around the return on investment targets. Members were advised that the strategy required a cultural shift and the onus was on Thurrock; how user friendly and intuitive the technology would be. Residents could not be forced to use the technology offered so there was a need to offer an experience they would want to use. The aim was to use data in such a way that there would be less need for residents to contact the council for issues. As for the return on investment targets, they were difficult to pin down. An expectation of 2:1 had been outlined and businesses cases would need to be very explicit as to the benefits.
Councillor Watkins agreed that the technology should be there to keep Thurrock ahead of the trend, but in order for it to be truly beneficial residents would have to use it. He asked how officers planned to promote the new technology to residents and whether there would be flexibility to navigate constantly changing technology availability. The world of technology changed quickly, hence an outcome focused strategy. How the strategy would be delivered might change but the desired outcomes would not.
Councillor Liddiard stresses the importance of strong business cases and ensuring value for money every step of the way and that he felt uncomfortable agreeing the £23million investment. He would be more comfortable with a case by case scenario. Members were assured that every capital spend would be supported by a business case.
Councillor Liddiard recalled previous Government Strategies to connect all systems which were either failures or extremely expensive and expressed concern regarding introducing one system to do everything for everyone. It was a big challenge but the intention was not one system, but a platform approach. It would not be realistic to join every service up; the key area of focus would be the outcomes that mattered most and the most important aspect would be data. The role of Local Authorities was likely to change and they would need to become data guardians/providers and so all data would need to be easily utilised and shared with other Authorities and partners.
Councillor Duffin referred to section 5.1 of the report, particularly the introduction of a public Wi-Fi across Thurrock, and asked whether it would be sponsored by outside businesses or a pay-to-use model. It was presumed there would be an element of paid service to fund the investment. It was important to saturate the borough with wireless for colleagues working offsite, NHS workers and other partners to change the shape of mobile working.
The Committee referred the Connected Thurrock Strategy to the meeting of Cabinet on 5 April 2017. The Committee’s support was provisional dependent upon clearer objectives, a clearer strategy for delivery and performance monitoring.