"It's not about having a glossy website" - East Renfrewshire Council’s Lorraine McMillan on the power of sharing digital expertise
Lorraine McMillan, chief executive of East Renfrewshire Council, tells Gill Hitchcock why cooperating on digital is second nature for Scotland’s local authorities
Lorraine McMillan says councils need "digital processes that go from when the customer chooses to activate the service, right through to the delivery of the service" Credit: East Renfrewshire Council
“There is no single council in Scotland at the moment that you would describe as a ‘digital council’,” says Lorraine McMillan, chief executive of East Renfrewshire Council.
“Many of us have services that are either digital or moving towards digital, and across local government we do have a wide range of expertise. What we decided was that if we shared that expertise across local government, and each of take an area, we could move much quicker.”
In a bold statement in the Scottish government’s A Digital Strategy for Scotland, published this March, she promises that all councils will be “digital businesses” by 2020.
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So where does McMillan think councils will be in three years’ time? “It is not about having a glossy website, but having digital processes that go from when the customer chooses to activate the service, right through to the delivery of the service.
“Now to be a digital business, a council will have to prioritise which services to digitise first – this will usually be decided by volume. And to be a digital business we would expect a council to have a wide range of services that have been digitised.”
A significant step in the digital direction came in April when what McMillan describes as a “partnership forum” met to agree a set of work streams. This means that each council is leading in a digital area in which it is already advanced. Until the final programme is announced, McMillan says the partners are working to make sure they get a “balanced portfolio”.
A Digital Strategy for Scotland reflects the close working relationship between central and local government, something that McMillan thinks is important – and feasible because of the geographical size of the country.
“All 32 chief executives meet at least monthly and, across the public sector, the leaders meet as a group at least once a year,” she says.
“So I would tend to know all my equivalents in the NHS, as well as in the police and fire services. The senior people generally know each other and work together on a wide range of projects. It’s the natural way we work together – and with digital the same thing happens.”
Good relationships and cooperation have been particularly important since the Scottish government’s introduction of integrated health and social care partnerships in 2016. These bodies have responsibility for more than £8 billion of funding for local services, money previously managed separately – by NHS boards and by local authorities.
McMillan points out that some digital systems have to work across health and social care and councils are working with NHS organisations on this, in the case of East Renfrewshire, with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.
Another driver behind digitisation is Scotland’s Local Government Digital Transformation Board. This partnership between the country’s local authorities is chaired by McMillan, and last year it won the Socitm digital engagement award at the society’s annual conference.
In part, the award recognised the board’s creation of a local government digital office, aimed at becoming a centre of excellence in data, technology and digital. Almost all councils – 28 out of 32 – are contributing financially to support the office.
“The digital office is not a shared service, it’s shared capacity, with a small team who help to coordinate the work of local government,” says McMillan.
At the end the board 2016 it appointed a chief digital officer, Martyn Wallace, and a chief technology officer, Colin Birchenall. The pair are currently working with councils to build a portfolio of collaborative initiatives and projects aimed at exploiting digital technologies to reduce the cost of services and improving the services for citizens.
Where is McMillan’s own council, East Renfrewshire, on its digital journey? She says the authority has examined every single process with the aim of making all transactional processes digital. Relational services, such as home care, will be supported by digital technologies.
“The digital office is not a shared service, it’s shared capacity"
The use of telehealth or telecare as part of care for older or disabled people at home, is one existing example. Another is a system used by home care staff so the council can monitor how long they spend on each visit. The next step, still being developed, is to provide this information to the families of those receiving care, to provide reassurance that their loved ones are being supported.
McMillan says East Renfrewshire is one of the “big users” of Glow, Scotland’s nationally available digital learning environment. “We have just invested in 3D goggles, so that our young people can actually get a different range of learning experiences. We did a pilot in 2016 and are rolling it out this year.”
Again in education, East Renfrewshire uses ParentPay, which gives mums and dads the opportunity to make online payments for school meals and trips instead of using cash. The idea is to make life easier for parents, but also to reduce the administrative burden on teachers.
The barriers to digitisation, however, are the difficulties in getting the right balance between investment and the benefits of that investment, she says. Another is the rate of change in technology, so that she is keen on an “agile” approach, rather than being locked into long-term programmes.
This year East Renfrewshire recruited two people to improve its website and digital services from the point of view of users.
“One of the things I feel passionately about is that we can use digital to deliver better services,” says McMillan. “In councils and across the public sector, people should be at the heart of what we do. We shouldn’t be using digital to distance ourselves from the people we serve, but using digital to help us serve those people better.”
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