Dynamics Matters Podcast Ep 60: How to save £18 million in three years

With special guest Matt Prosser, Chief Executive, Dorset County Council

✔ How to avoid 'spaghetti' technology

✔ Why listening to your customers ...

✔ ... and your staff, will tell you all you need to know

Transcript

Welcome to episode 60 of the HSO Dynamics matters podcast.

Your regular sonic dive into the world of Microsoft technology related matters and much more besides.

I’m your host Michael Lonnon, and in today’s episode I took a drive to Sunny and glorious Dorset for a chin wag with Dorset Council Chief Executive Matt Prosser.

Dorset Council is a unitary council made up originally of six district and borough councils. This means Matt had a spaghetti of different systems, processes, and data on his hands.

I caught up with Matt to find out how he approached the challenge of pulling all of this together to ensure citizen services continue seamlessly.

So, grab a brew, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Michael Lonnon

You’ve just come back from a holiday. How are you feeling? Are you feeling refreshed?

Matt Prosser

I am actually feeling refreshed. I took my own medicine, as I say to colleagues. Switch off, find the off button, turn off the email, turn off the team’s all the notifications and have two weeks off. It was helped by the fact that for some reason my roaming contract didn’t seem to work properly in Europe, so I was reliant on a WiFi connection. So, it was great, had a complete break, did some reading of physical books, and spend a bit of time in the sun.

Michael Lonnon

There is a tip for anyone listening to this. Alright, so today we’re talking about challenges in local authorities. So, in terms of local authorities, and delivering the services, what are you seeing as generally the biggest challenges?

Matt Prosser

At the moment is going to be our ability to attract and maintain good people. And retaining knowledge and expectations within local government, both about technology and supporting everyone to understand how and why it isn’t just about changing IT systems when we think about digital transformation. More generally, it is just about retaining people, we’re competing in a national marketplace where you can do a job from your back room now working for a London Authority as easily as you can when you live in Dorset. So, why would you work for us as an individual authority? So yes, good challenge.

Michael Lonnon

That skills gap is coming up everywhere in finding the right talent. So how are you approaching it in Dorset?

Matt Prosser

One of the things we’ve set out is to be an employer of choice and firstly we want to retain the people we’ve got. The good people we’ve got. And secondly, we’ve been running a campaign recently about love Dorset, and why people love to work in Dorset. So, getting out from our workforce across all levels of the organisation, just saying a little bit about what it is to work at Dorset Council. Hopefully that will attract people who want to come here and also, it’s helping to get the messages out as to why it’s a great organisation to work for.

Michael Lonnon

Let me just be an advocate for Dorset as it’s one of my favourite places to go. So if anybody is thinking about getting down there, go. I highly recommend it. Dorset Council has set themselves a pretty ambitious target, I think I was reading to save around 18 million pounds by the end of 2024. And there’s a large transformation project built around 38 of its own separate projects. Can you tell me a little bit more about that ambition and what’s fuelling it?

Matt Prosser

Yeah, absolutely. Dorset Council is a new council, it’s a unitary Council and it was formed from six different organisations, one county council, five Districts and Borough Councils existed before. So, we’ve been through a massive transformation programme, just pulling all those six organisations into one by the very necessity of coming into one organisation, we got thinking about doing things differently. We’re now one council not six, so we want to remove duplication, we want to focus on the frontline delivering services to residents. So the aim of the plan is to make us more efficient. Take those resources, you talked about that 18 million pounds, that’s not just about taking it out of the budget, that’s about refocusing some of that. Obviously, we’ve got a big focus, one of our great benefits in Dorset is it’s a lovely place to live and we get a lot of people who choose to come here when they’ve stopped working. As a consequence, we’ve got one of the largest older populations in the country. We need to be able to support them and give the services, and they don’t come cheap. So one of the things is about shifting inefficiency to delivering services, that’s our challenge.

Michael Lonnon

So, you’ve grown, and you’ve got a massive job, a really big, important job hats off to you for taking on the challenge. Generally, not as a result of actually become a unitary Council, is it becoming harder or perhaps easier to service citizen needs?

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Matt Prosser

Well, I think it’s really interesting, because the last couple of years has been transformational for many for different reasons, both good and bad, with the pandemic. The pandemic has meant that digital citizen expectations have risen, because we’ve had to put everything into the online space as much as possible, so that when people couldn’t travel and work, so we’re racing to keep up in one sense. We’re delivering new customer platforms, we’ve got all omni channel experiences at the same time, as well as supporting our customers, businesses, and communities throughout and now living with COVID. So, we’ve had to do both which has been a challenge. I mean, just as an example, we’ve doubled our turnover through the COVID pandemic by giving out more than our annual budget in grants to support local people on top of still delivering that day job with the same resources by and large. Making changes on the fly to our services and our digital offers been a challenge. I think it’s become harder. But I think that can do approach that came out of the first week of the pandemic, I moved 2,554 employees to work online. If I said to them the week before, in a week’s time, you’re all going to be working online, they would have said you’re mad. But actually, we’ve been able to do it and we’ve been able to say, actually take that can do approach, when you’ve got a singular focus on something you can do anything and apart from being a bit tired, I think the workforce is still up for those challenges.

Michael Lonnon

How is technology helping you adapt and meet those changing needs for citizens?

Matt Prosser

When we were creating, setting up the new council in 2019, we set out to be a digitally based council. Technology underpins everything we do now. It’s obviously much easier, but for those who weren’t in the space that we are, have been dragged kicking and screaming through the pandemic to rely on it, we had the benefit, a little bit, it wasn’t foresight, we didn’t know a pandemic was coming but with hindsight, it was a good decision. So, we’ve changed models and systems and processes to be customer focused, rather than implementing the monolithic systems that meant the organisation or customers had to adapt to them. We’re working within the Digital Declaration and the low code revolution. It’s got other issues associated with it and we need to make sure we oversee and manage and maintain that code and be consistent across all of our services. If we’re going to have a unified customer experience, we’re trying hard to move to that to both physical and digital, so that when people come into the council, they get seamless service.

Michael Lonnon

Some of the things you’re saying almost sound more like a private business, to be honest, and facing some of those challenges. There’s talk about adopting new technology and when you bring businesses together, the challenge often is there are different systems, different requirements, and people have different skills in working with those technologies. And there’s reticence – sometimes – to pick certain things up. As a council that’s come together out of many councils, I guess is has some of those underpinning problems as well?

Matt Prosser

Yes, it does but of course, that was also the benefit, that benefit of changing things was the excuse to make change happen. Rather than saying to your workforce, we’re just going to have to change this new way of working, actually saying, look, we’re a new organisation so we’re going to do some things differently. We took a lot of time with the staff to bring them along with us on that journey in terms of saying, what are the things of our old organisations, we really want to keep, the good things, and what are the things we wanted to jettison and move on and that’s been really important. Then of course, we’ve made many changes in technologies. We’ve come together as a new council but importantly, it’s been underpinned by user focus, co design and service design approach that transforms the way we deliver our services, designing around the customer. For me, the really important thing is the customer, around how we support them. Now, that’s a big challenge for local authorities, in one sense, we’re not like a commercial company, we don’t get to segment the market, and say, well, we’re just going to deliver to the profitable market, or we’re just going to deliver to that segment that we choose to go into, we’ve got to deliver a universal service to all 380,000 residents in Dorset and that’s sometimes a challenge, but there is a chance for us to be commercial with a social purpose so we can be more business-like with a social purpose. So, we can look at it and make sure we’re effective and efficient in the way we do things and look at other businesses in the private sector to see how they’ve done things, and take the good things from that and go, so how do we interpret that to be a council.

Michael Lonnon

That’s a great piece of advice, and I was going to ask you this. For any other councils, going through any kind of change of culture, change of transformation for the positive way to deliver better services, what sort of advice would you give them? Perhaps it’s things like looking at how private organisations are managing how they’re dealing with their customers, the type services they’re delivering, and what experiences they’re providing, perhaps?

Matt Prosser

One of the quotes that I’ve often heard comes from private sector, was from Terry Lee, when he was chief exec at Tesco, which at the time, I think was the third largest retailer on the planet. I love the quote. He used to say, if you stop and you listen to your customers, they’ll tell you what is wrong with your organisation, but if you stop and listen for long enough, they’ll also tell you what is both good about your organisation and how you’re making the things that are going wrong go right. That’s really sound advice and we’ve tried to do that. My advice to others is to listen and involve citizens, your elected members, and staff at every state. They’ll work with you to help you shape things that work. We’re not afraid to fail, fail fast and to reinvent ourselves. We’ve got to reimagine and always have a strong, clear, compelling, exciting reason as to why we’re changing things, because you need to take people with you. They need to understand why they’re going through this pain of change and how it will make things better for everyone involved. That’s what we’re trying to do as we seek to make Dorset a great place to live, work and visit.

Michael Lonnon

Final thing for me, and because I’m in admiration for what you’re doing and the responsibilities you have, as a chief executive of such a large council, a unitary Council, how do you relax, how do you unwind, how do you take some of this responsibility off your shoulders as an individual?

Matt Prosser

I’ll give you some trade secrets here. I’ve surrounded myself throughout my career with great people and I see my role just to allow them to be great. I’ve got people who work around me who can do things that I absolutely can’t do but I see it as my role to just release them to be the best that they can be. At the end of the day, even within digital technology and digital services, we are a people-based organisation delivering services to people, so I need my people to be the best they can be, that’s why we invest in them and training and development and supporting them. How do I relax on the back of that, well, knowing that I’ve got good team around me. I didn’t look at my emails for two weeks whilst I was on leave. Two of my exec directors stepped into the space to be acting chief exec for me, trust them and know they’ve got my back and we’re looking out for the stuff that I do whilst away.

Summary
If you stop and listen to your customers, they’ll tell you what is wrong with your organisation. But if you stop and listen for long enough, they’ll also tell you what is both good about your organisation and how you’re making the things that are going wrong go right.

This is the mantra Matt and Dorset Council follow.

Listen and involve citizens, elected members, and staff at every chance because they’ll work with you to shape change for the better.

And always have a strong, clear, compelling, exciting reason as to why you change things, because you need to take people with you.

Thanks for listening, until next time, take care of yourselves.

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