Paul Neville is the CIO and CDO of Waltham Forest, the north-east London borough that sits above Stratford to the south, with the River Lea tracing a border with Edmonton and Ponders End to the west.
CIO UKspoke to Neville about how the council is using technology to positively impact the lives of the 271,200 people that call the borough home.
The council is intimately involved in the daily lives of residents. “From emptying rubbish bins, to streetlights, registering births and marriages, deaths, schools, social care – which is the biggest part of what we do – to much more in between,” says Neville.
Neville’s career has wound what some might consider an unorthodox path. He hails from the commercial sector, having previously held the roles of Director of eExperience Delivery at Sky and Programme Director at BT. Although his current role was immediately preceded by a stint in the charity sector, advising Marie Curie and Macmillan as part of his work at a consultancy.
Neville actively aims to apply principles he’s picked up in business within his role at the council, even referring to residents as ‘customers’ – he says that this is intentional, and that conceptualising residents as customers is useful for thinking about how to better meet their needs, something which is driven by a business imperative in the commercial sector.
“Taking that customer-first mindset, really understanding customer journeys and improving our customer journeys has been an important part of what we’ve done,” says Neville.
An important facet of tailoring the customer experience is communication. To this end, the council launched Facebook and Twitter bots earlier in 2018 through which residents can interact with five services. The Twitter bot is an add-on called WF-townwalks, while the Facebook bot is accessible through the Messenger app via the council’s Facebook page. The most popular service by far is reporting fly tipping, with Neville saying that rubbish disposed in the neighbourhood is one of resident’s sorest pain points.
Neville says he was urged by associates to create an app, but had surveyed data showing that people are becoming less receptive to downloading new applications. To this point he says: “So what you need to do is think about that from a customer’s perspective: saying actually, where are the people?”
He says reporting through the bots is effortless, simply requiring the resident to take a picture of the mess. They’ll be geolocated, or can enter the location if they’re not at the site anymore. The resident must then answer five questions, compared to the 20 they had to previously answer on the form submitted on the site. Again, these were trimmed down with customer experience in mind.
But it’s no good having a seamless reporting system if you can’t deliver the desired outcome. To take care of this side of the equation, the contractors charged with clearing up the mess were given tablets where requests for cleaning up trigger an immediate response.
“When they’ve done the job, they just click a button on their tablet, which basically sends the information back through to our back-office system, which then pushes the information back to the customer,” says Neville.
If notifications are enabled on their phones, the customer will receive a message to say that the mess has been cleared. It’s the kind of seamless digital journey that we’re not necessarily accustomed to expecting from local government. Neville says it’s received a lot of positive feedback. “This is not just about tech,” he affirms. “This is about changing the way we work.”
Like most other CIOs, Neville is also preoccupied with a shift into the cloud, overseeing the closure of the local authority’s main data centre. This has opened up new opportunities for the council. “There’s some really exciting things that we’re trying in terms of data analytics in the cloud using data lake technology,” he says.
The move to cloud is allowing the council to leverage big data towards creating better services in a way that wasn’t previously possible. One of the proof of concept projects in this area brought five datasets together around examining properties with non-licensed landlords by, for example, linking tax receipts with people who have registered that they live in the same household.
“This is big data,” says Neville. “We’re uniting lots and lots of data, but using the cloud to enable us to be doing that quickly and access local services which help us do that in a much more effective way than we’ve ever done in the past.”
This is even more of an imperative given the tight budgetary constraints he’s faced with. “I feel very strongly that data and how we analyse data is absolutely critically important and how we use it,” he adds.
Another key project is implementing an integration layer across all of the local authority’s systems.
“That’s very important because one of the challenges I found joining the sector was the amount of legacy suppliers and their performance as suppliers and they’re often in a monopoly or duopoly position so it’s difficult to deal with them,” says Neville. “And also their level of innovation, which seems to me to behind other sectors actually in some ways.”
Neville says he’d like to, for example, plug in the new microservice locator cloud based tool and integrate it into a kind of much older backend system. He says an integration layer in this case would help to do that, as well as automating workflow across their different activities.
Neville also created a new role – someone to look after the current and future technical architecture.
“So working out how’s it going to fit together now, how they want it to fit together in the future and having a strategy on how we manage suppliers over the work that we do in order to get to that future,” he says. “Being able to link them now to the future is really important in a logical and pragmatic way and so it’s not a dream, it’s a thing that we do step by step and make sure that we’ve got the money to do the right things along the way.”
Broadband connectivity is another of Neville’s passion projects, and he’s become a vocal advocate London-wide for greater connectivity. Despite being the capital, Neville says it’s actually underserved, meaning there can still be a real difficulty in getting good speeds at a reasonable cost.
Right now, Neville chairs a board that functions across different council services with the aim of making a better business case for industries to invest in fibre connectivity in Waltham Forest, and have won funding to help.
Having worked for broadband giants before, Neville understands the various restrictions more than most. Does he regret substituting this world for that of local government?
“I think local government for me was a real perfect fit for that because it was somewhere that use my experience and transformations I’ve delivered in other places,” he says. “But what’s really motivating is because councils … councils do literally change people’s lives.
“My responsibility includes thinking about the borough as a whole. So not just from a staff output, but from a resident input perspective, what does digital mean for the borough of Waltham Forest?”