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Is County Council collaboration key to success?

Michael Lonnon
28 Mar, 2022

“Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.” – Alexander Graham Bell

In most industries, a keen competitive edge keeps businesses from collaborating to solve common challenges. This is not so in local government.

Councils work to the same agenda: to help citizens live their best lives. So it’s in their best interests to find opportunities to collaborate and share ideas.

The pandemic sped up adoption of digital tools because councils were forced to find new ways to engage with communities. It also heightened the desire to collaborate and find ways to share methods of delivering better citizen experiences.

In a recent chat with Suffolk County Council’s Deputy Chief Executive, Chris Bally, he believes the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of collaboration technology:

It sounds odd, when you go back to a pre covid world and you think about how county councils collaborated, we likely would have met in London. We may have gone into a room at the LGA in London and been there for a day. Whereas now you can jump on Microsoft Teams, or whatever platform you use, get online quickly, and share experiences fast.

Chris Bally Deputy Chief Executive

The digital momentum in local government has evolved from adoption to collaboration and getting the best results from technology now in place. But why do partnerships have such a positive and lasting impact on service delivery and citizen care?

The power of partnerships

“People bring different perspectives. If you bring subject matter experts together from different disciplines, I think that is the recipe for innovation.” Chris’ view makes sense, right? Looking at challenges faced, and solutions to overcome, in isolation restricts our view. But having access to a wider and deeper range of experiences and skills makes overcoming unique challenges as they arise, easier. And less costly as it’s already been done.

Chris references the approach Suffolk County took to solving a unique challenge in getting kids to school, which cost the county £20 million a year. Chris’s team sought to introduce route efficiencies that would get kids to where they needed to be but reduce the cost of doing so. “We've got some really good transport planners. They understand bus routes and they know all about moving people around Suffolk.” But they lacked the technical expertise to identify specific routes of efficiency. In fact, they didn’t think it could it possible given what they knew.

With challenge in hand, Suffolk approached a partner in the local innovation centre to see if together they could come up with a solution. “We asked the optimisation team: ‘How can we use IT to optimise transport routes? Could you build an algorithm that knows where the low bridges are?’” The interesting thing was the experts from the innovation centre weren’t sure it was possible either. But with the two teams in a room together, that’s when ideas began to flow.

The output was an artificial intelligence-based visualisation tool which identified alternative transport routes, saving the Council £2 million a year.

When we put our director of children's services in a room with the visualisation tool the first thing he said was, ‘why does that line go from there to there?’, and somebody said, ‘well, that's because you're taking a child from there to there.’ And he asked, ‘why?’ Immediately, you're into a completely different discussion. This is why collaboration is so important.

Chris Bally Deputy Chief Executive

Putting the squeeze on siloed thinking

Collaborating in this way has delivered measurable value for Suffolk County Council. And now they’re in discussions about sharing it with neighbouring councils to see if the solution can deliver the same value. If it can, there’s nothing stopping more councils adopting and benefitting from it.

Moving away from siloed thinking is also one of the reasons Chris believes devolution is a good thing. Unblocking barriers and powers and building more collaborative relationships between central government and local government.

“Suffolk is coastal, we have a huge amount of wind farm technology, and we're also in the process of an inquiry on the site of a nuclear power station. But we have to deal with government departments and suppliers individually. We don't want to change who makes the decisions, or where the power sits, but we’d like power to convene people in a room.”

Removing siloed thinking and treating Suffolk as a place.

Make technology accessible to all

Technology advances have made the internet highly accessible. To most. 96.6% of UK households to be exact. And as broadband technology improves further, the number will go up. As will speeds.

Accessing the internet has become a way of life. From booking a doctor's appointment to paying your bills. Connecting the country was phase one, if you like, and phase two is about making consumption easy. “Exclusion is more likely if you can't get online, which is why technology is so important. It's important we design intuitive technology and not be too clunky. We know sometimes we don't get it right but certainly it’s on our minds.” Combining modern tools and the internet to provide easily accessible, quick to engage with, services. As Suffolk County Council’s Chris Bally was keen to express: “Technology underpins everything we do.”

COVID forced councils to adopt the latest collaboration technology, such as Microsoft Teams, to maintain service as usual, in unusual circumstances. And it’s with these same tools that councils, together with partners, are coming together to collaborate more easily to solve common challenges, as shown by Suffolk County Council. Using Artificial Intelligence to find efficiencies that save millions is just one example. And it’s activities like this, done in collaboration with technology partners and other councils, that may well see those in local government become leaders in the of technology. Which is quite some turnaround.


Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 45: Is County Council collaboration key to success?

With special guest Chris Bally, Deputy Chief Executive, Suffolk County Council. 

✔ Why council collaboration is essential

✔ The importance of reducing siloed council thinking

✔ And why technology needs to be accessible for all

Listen to the podcast

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