Digital transformation, technology and local public services: Camden and beyond

Theo Blackwell
Aug 29, 2016 · 16 min read

The London borough of Camden is home to approximately 230,000 residents with a daytime population double that. Nearly 2% of the nation’s wealth is created here by 29,000 registered businesses located from Covent Garden, the major Knowledge Quarter institutions of Bloomsbury and Euston and the emerging tech hubs of King’s Cross, Camden Town and Kentish Town.

Since 2010 Camden council has been on a huge journey, outlined in this Prezi, to understand the emerging benefits, opportunities and challenges of the digital revolution to local public services and residents.

From my perspective as Cabinet member for Finance, Technology and Growth here the journey really started in 2012 after the development of the new Camden Plan when we fundamentally reviewed revenue spending. You can therefore argue our plans were largely finance-driven rather than customer-service or modernisation-driven — although there are strong elements of each in our approach.

The emphasis may differ from council to council but to a greater or lesser extent, these drivers will be common.

Note to reader: I am not a techie by background myself, but worked with Martha Lane Fox at Race Online when digital thinking transitioned from the Labour to Coalition government in 2010; and subsequently saw innovation through the eyes of the video games industry, where I worked for the last 5 years — in addition to being local councillor (which I have been since 2002).

The point of writing this piece is to begin to paint a broader picture of digital transformation on local public services away from the strong dynamics of channel shift that have often dominated much of the thinking of elected types like me in town halls.

In my experience there is a much deeper story to tell around applied digital leadership in order to do what we elected to do — run public services effectively and make a difference to the people and communities we represent.

Data, technology and public service reform

Over the last decade there has been a fundamental shift in the application of technology arising improvements in data analytics. During this time I became increasingly convinced of its relevance to the reform and delivery of local government services.

There has been some groundbreaking thinking going on in Whitehall through the Government Digital Service which has clear applicability to local government.

I still feel today that the GDS Design Principles (“start with user needs” etc.) are not just a good a starting point for public servants seeking to redesign systems, but an invaluable aide-memoire for councillors providing challenge and leadership to their officers on this and policy-formation in general.

Later thinking by then GDS Director General Mike Bracken developed the concept as government-as-a-platform in UK context: the ‘delivery crisis’ outlined to the civil service in Digital Government: the strategy is delivery also played itself out in town halls right across the country. Of course, major innovation has been seen in city government in New York through Mayor Bloomberg and his patronage of Mike Flowers’ Office of Data Analytics, a.k.a. the Big Apple’s Geek Squad.

As with GDS the relative success of Camden’s approach relies on active sponsorship by senior politicians and public servants, reformed governance on IT procurement as well as good links to the private sector. We similarly saw change as a necessary response to wider changes to customer expectation, services and the economy — to move from the old ‘vending machine’ model of public services of rigid inputs and outputs to one which see the benefits of application platform thinking and the iteration of services as technology evolves.

Tim O’Reilly describes ‘Government 2.0’ as a variant of ‘Web 2.0’:

In a nutshell: the secret to the success of bellwethers like Google, Amazon, eBay, Craigslist, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter is that each of these sites, in its own way, has learned to harness the power of its users to add value to — no, more than that, to co-create — its offerings.

Now, a new generation has come of age with the Web, and it is committed to using its lessons of creativity and collaboration to address challenges facing our country and the world.

Camden’s challenge

Digital transformation takes time, espcially during the biggest service cuts since the Second World War. The scale of the cuts (£163m+ off Camden budgets over 7 years, which I have written extensively about here plus massive reduction in capital budgets) and demographic pressures on children and adult social care are literally so great that local councils have been unable to balance budgets without stopping services outright, radically reshaping them or limiting their scope.

But when we turn to talking about solutions and about using digital technology in councils the conversation often descends into a far more limited discussion about ‘front-line vs back office’. This posits that if you restructure or outsource costly and sometimes supposedly unproductive administrative services which operate behind the scenes, you can actully cut enough money to keep the everyday street services people see and use open. ‘Back office’ services such as these have therefore been prime targets for large IT solutions companies over the last decade.

As you will see from the account below, this narrative is less helpful in describing the context and decisions of operating public services in today’s climate and does not capture the dynamic relationship modern services have with data.

So I see technology-based public service reform meeting budget pressures in three main ways:

(1) use of technology directly (agile working, innovation in design, culture and delivery)

(2) use of technology to plan local budgets better and measure performance (data via new platforms)

(3) imagining what the future of public services look like and enabling more innovation.

In our current plans some 85% of all savings needed to balance the books in Camden have a digital technology-based solution in one form or another. What follows are my observations on how we’ve gone about this, some of which will be explored in more detail in later posts.

Technology enables modernisation

This is an obvious point: but one which probably needs to be dealt with first. While councils invest in new customer centres to serve the public in new ways, many council offices the public don’t see behind the scenes still look like they did 15 years ago. Teams are allocated to desks in old-style departments, filing cabinets abound and there are many printers and photocopiers attached to fixed computer terminals. That’s not necessarily a signal of a badly-run organisation, but suggests to me that opportunities have yet to be seized.

Moving to our new offices in King’s Cross, investing in IT services and capacity meant Camden effectively became paperless in 2014: going from 22km of paper held by the council to about 2km.

96% of staff now work in an agile way. Reform has meant that we don’t have static departments, teams set up on projects and to solve problems. They use laptops and don’t have their own desks: in fact there purposefully aren’t enough desks/employees (6.5 desks for every 10 workers) as we allow and expect staff to work remotely either from home or elsewhere in the borough, e.g. in community centres, businesses etc.

More technology and a better use of office space means we can free up buildings to sell and use the capital for the council’s agreed objectives (investment in schools and homes) or by using old office space and renting it out as modern commercial to support spending. Investing capital in our new HQ in King’s Cross saves in excess of £2.5m in running costs a year.

Staff are able to use their own devices (BYOD) as well as council equipment, which allows for greater flexibility and familiarity. The quality of our offices means we are regularly approached by other public sector organisations seeking to rent space from the council, generating further income.

Reforming the way we work

Technology has enabled us to move to performance-related pay (PRP) right across the organisation, so staff are also rewarded for their success at meeting objectives agreed not just through annual increments. We are able to monitor performance, pay and diversity far better as a result.

Savings from PRP enabled the council to become a London Living Wage employer by 2017 and we’ve just completed a major restructure to 3 departments (Performance, People and Places) moving us further away from the ‘strong department’ model popular 1990s onwards.

More use of digital in day-to-day services

Many town halls have changed how people can ask for information and report issues by improving their websites. It is near universal now for websites to operate on a mobile-first way, enabling far greater reach. Councils like Camden have set up personal accounts for residents and businesses to pay their taxes. In the future these platforms can be used for all sorts of communications, e.g. missed bin collections or notifications of service suspensions, well as important transactions.

Face-to-face cashier’s desks have either been put online and we’ve partnered with the Post Office and linked up our respective IT systems so our residents and businesses could continue to pay for council services in local post offices. Not only did this improve the local offer, and help smaller post offices with around 30,000 transactions a month, it has saved the council £1.13m per annum.

Notification for planning applications is now conducted through a new portal, now in Beta, rather than unaddressed letters sent to adjacent properties. This allows greater personalisation (you can set notifications for your neighbourhood, not just your street) and saves £300k year in second class postage stamps alone.

Our street cleaning, waste and recycling contract — a classic council long-term procurement — has not been comprehensively re-tendered since 2002. Since then, technology has improved and new innovations developed, such as in-cab technology which allows drivers to see if a recycling bin has been contaminated and cameras to help resolve missed collection complaints.

Our new waste contract signed this year will involve a much more active use of technology to improve the effectiveness of the service and resident awareness of what their new responsibilities are. This time we have taken a completely new approach focussed on what we want (e.g. increased recycling rates, prevention and prosecution of fly-tipping and less contamination of recycling bins), rather than relying almost entirely on a list of tasks involved in cleaning a particular street on a given day of the week and monitored to that rigid specification with less capacity to deal with bigger problems as they arose.

By changing the way the contract is negotiated, taking advantage of new technology and working to reduce littering and increase recycling, we hope to save more than £5 million a year while making sure we keep the borough clean and tidy.

Joining up all of our data

The Camden Resident Index from IBM brings together data from 16 front and back office services about Camden residents and shares it across the council — everything from benefit payments to whether they have a library card.

Although residents give the council a lot of information, they’d be surprised how little sharing of information there has been, mostly due to compatibility of IT systems, culture and privacy concerns. Also, a lot of public data just isn’t clean enough — people don’t necessarily sign themselves up to things using exactly the same name (nicknames etc.); they move or split with their partners and don’t update their details.

So we now have ‘one version of the truth’ about residents enabling us to know more about them. The CRI has helped us reduce fraud and the system is now used to safeguard children to identify more about vulnerable households.

In adult social care we have mapped a 10-year journey of a very complex social care case with an anonymised citizen which shows the interactions they have had with the council and external agencies providing new insights around the system as a whole and flagging where interventions could have been made earlier to improve preventative care and stop their acute needs arising a such late stages.

The key here is exploiting the data that is held across multiple different systems to gain new and predictive insight. We are now exploring the capabilities of technologies like IBM Watson to help use predictive analytics to give us new insight into complex cases, such as what prevention measures are most effective based on analysis of the data we hold on our resident.

Our systems are now so resilient that they can share the NHS number between the council and the health services, allow much more effective working.

Improving performance and accountability

To do this effectively you require a significant amount of data to determine what your outcomes are (via a borough plan) and how you aim to achieve them, and in what order of priority. Camden (like many private sector organisations) began to use Qlikview Business Dashboard to capture the data in a consistent form in order for it to be interrogated by managers and local councillors.

Currently 75 different services are viewable by managers, so they can see how these and other services are working and cut the data in a variety of ways. This effectively replaces a heavy paper-based system required for government monitoring. Soon these performance tables will be publicly accessible as well.

We have an Open Data Charter and a Socrata open data platform similar to the one used in New York where more and more searchable information is available online by default — information on parking, for example, has led to a reduction in costs on FoIs and the development of private sector innovation through apps to direct people to parking spaces.

Setting better budgets and priorities

Technology is changing how councils budget from annual or medium term departmental budgets (the MO from 1990s+) to outcomes-based budgeting. Our outcomes-based review in 2014/5 looked at the entire scope of what we spent money on, how it was spent and what the purpose was. It considered what we were required to do by law (statutory services) and what we did to respond to resident wants and needs (discretionary services). It examined the interplay between the two and sought to eliminate duplication and to invest money into agreed outcomes instead of just spending it as we had done, a process which previously provided certainty but was prone to inertia/group think over time.

A good example of where we used technology to make better decisions was looking to change community safety budgets in 2015. Here we aimed to “reduce levels of crime, particularly violent crime.” Historically we did this through investing in a range of measures, including Camden Street Wardens to assist the police, provide visible reassurance on the street and be ‘professional witnesses’ when residents were too afraid to give evidence against anti-social behaviour.

Starting over a decade ago Camden Street Wardens helped issue hundreds of ASBOs against drug dealers and signpost vulnerable tenants and residents to services. Ten years later we asked ourselves whether they were the most effective means over time of achieving our objectives? When the data showed that unreported violent crime was more likely to be committed at home, we decided to invest in domestic violence and take a saving from street wardens.

Now, it’s not necessarily straightforward to do this.

Wardens were popular, especially in the estates where they had made the biggest difference. But the availability of data to back up our decision between resident wants (visible reassurance) and needs (prevention of serious violence to the person) was something which could be justified.

Using the example social service journey above, we found that our housing repairs team often replaced internal doors in the tenants’ properties several times, logged as just another a building repair — the significance of which we had missed. However, the use of data coupled with the judgement of staff flagged this as a potential indicator for domestic violence and therefore possible outreach and intervention.

Promoting a better business environment

Finally, recognition that public services are responding to the digital revolution has enabled a greater understanding of the changing needs of the business community. Camden led the procurement of public Wi-Fi concessions across 16 other London boroughs, so residents and visitors to our high streets have at least 30 mins free Wi-Fi per day. There are now over 100 Wi-Fi hotspots across the borough in areas as a result of the project and the contract is forecast to generate over £3m of investment over the next decade.

We are leasing rooftop space on tall council housing and office blocks to mobile and broadband companies to improve competition locally to residents and businesses. This will bring in at least £600k revenue a year as well as digital inclusion benefits by giving free Wi-Fi to 57 tenant’s halls in the borough.

New policy was developed to allow digital advertising in the borough for the first time to allow our buildings and others to monetise space.

We also meet business concern about long-term talent by championing digital skills in our 57 schools and have sponsored links between tech firms, universities and was one of the first authorities to roll out code clubs locally.

Next steps

Our Digital Strategy is now 2 years old. To refresh our approach Camden officers mapped the interdependencies to draw together a suggested scope for a new approach embedded in the next corporate plan for the borough.

Some clear themes have emerged as we discuss digital transformation in the context of the new Camden Plan 2017+

  1. Digital Foundations — What are the basics a council like ours still needs to get right internally to facilitate more transformation?
  2. Digital Aspirations — How can we set of digital principles to further our goals and ambitions for Camden?

Legacy systems create a large technical burden when launching and integrating new tools. There is an opportunity now to rationalise these systems and applications and identify new opportunities through ongoing systems-thinking reviews of each service. Where services are protective of their existing approach, engagement is needed to help them understand how transitioning to new systems (such as QlikView) cut the data so that it is more beneficial to the organisation as a whole.

It will also be critical that we have the right skills and behaviours within the authority. We need to make sure that we can spot and act on opportunities, be clearer about the user needs and problems we are trying to solve, and universally understand the value of, say, good quality data and effective engagement. While we still transition these are not technical issues at all, but basics of good management — how can managers run a good service without good data telling them what is going on and feedback from the people they are trying to serve? We have still staff at all levels whose basic skills are lacking and we will need to ensure that leaders are competent digital advocates.

Working with other councils

More immediately Camden proposes to share IT services with neighbouring Islington and Haringey, a resident population of over 700k. Over 450 staff are in scope and the programme will establish a Digital Advisory Board with the best from the public and private sector to advise us. Each council is expected to cash several million in savings, but the real benefits could be service improvements and expertise. Ideally the shared service would be converted into council-owned company with its own ethos and reward structure to ensure we continued to recruit the best in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

London-wide and England-wide principles

The new Chief Digital Officer for London pledged by Mayor Sadiq Khan presents a major opportunity for boroughs to learn from one another and become greater than the sum of our parts. The London Data Store has advanced thinking already. Camden hosts the Local Digital Coalition to improve sharing of innovation between authorities across the country to promote the development of common standards.

In the future a new open data and standards culture of public services should enable better budgeting and intervention as described above, as well as propel innovation.

We also believe there is an important coordinating role between central and local government, whether through GDS or other leadership set out in the proposed UK Digital Strategy, with several clear actions all local councils should sign up to.

The question of what real local government leaders should be doing is a big one which will be explored in other posts in more detail. Certainly releasing more information and government-provided data APIs is fundamental. But it is also the adoption of cloud computing, wikis, crowdsourcing, mobile applications, mashups, sponsoring developer contests and so on.

Getting public professionals to define the scope and scale of problems they require solving is a new challenge which will also demand leadership. To do this is we will have to continue to invest to ensure we are skilled enough at identifying digital opportunities, which must be informed by the work flow and the intended user.

Even further into the future

There is no reason why, with the right leadership, local government shouldn’t be at the cusp of adopting the latest tech. PWC highlight 8 technologies businesses will use in the future. It is unclear the immediate application of Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality will be but we can see how Internet of Things (IoT) is developing in public services as well as Artificial Intelligence/machine learning for where there is a high volume of data. But an important question (e.g. with innovations like Blockchain) is what problem are we actually trying to solve?

Camden is piloting IoT technologies, starting with parking sensors, street lighting and waste management to provide data to improve services and help us target resources more effectively. Building on these pilots we are looking at how technology in our buildings and fabric can then be joined up to help inform more complex social care issues.

Intelligent (or robotic) process automation for high scale transactional services (HR/finance, customer services) and further context brokering will be another area to explore. We will see further utilisation of technology that pulls together data from an ever-wider set of sources and provides contextual outputs for us. Sources such as mobile phones (use of location data); communication networks (greater capacity and utilization); sensors (temperature, pressure, device on or off); personal analytic devices (monitoring the condition of a person); our own application systems (council tax systems, records of recent transactions); finally, publicly available datasets such as open data and commerce sites (retail statistics).

This will give us a repeatable and systematic approach using public and private data sources for the discovery, preparation, analysis and delivery of insights in the form of derived context data. Again, the benefit to residents and taxpayers is greater well-being and the prevention of acute (and costly) demand arising.

We will see much more advanced use of personal analytics –this is the use of data by our residents/citizens to help achieve objectives across a range of domains, including personal healthcare (fitness); safety; financial management; employment; social connection (spending time with others) and self-esteem (personal development). The authority’s role here will be to enable the use of this data, through our tech for our residents to use.

Realising the benefits of agglomeration here may mean some challenging public policy questions around privacy and data sharing — and even changes to legislation. The agreement between Google Deep Mind and the Royal Free hospital being the first of these new ventures to be discussed publicly.


There is much more to explore here but my main point is that local government transformation cannot be a narrowly focused strategy about moving government services online. It’s about enabling the reform of government, business and society for the better. This is how we have approached digital in the borough and our ambitions are set out in our Digital Strategy and our ongoing work.

In the future local government must be recognised as integral to the delivery of cross-government transformation, economic growth and making everyday lives easier. Local and regional government must invest in digital leadership at an officer and councillor level so at the very least local government be empowered to:

  • See digital transformation, open data and common standards as a necessary part of devolution deals and long-term government efficiency deals;
  • Develop broad local digital plans to integrate local and regional digital developments across the locality to accelerate progress, synergise investment and and seed future innovation;
  • Lead the development of an interoperability framework that enables data sharing and end-to-end process automation across local and central government;
  • Play a full and participatory role in the development and rollout of Government-as-a-Platform in order to constantly learn and evolve.


Theo Blackwell

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