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Interview: St. Helen’s boss on how the council went digital with O2

Mike Palin
Mike Palin

If someone told your local authority that it could revolutionise its performance, save a fortune and not impact services adversely, all through the use of IT, you might wonder why they’d hesitate. Mike Palin, chief executive of St. Helen’s Council, certainly didn’t when the opportunity came up through an offer from O2, which wanted ammunition for a report on digitalising environments.

“O2 was involved with the production of a report nationally that looked at the digital high street, and they approached a number of areas in the country with a view to their getting involved.”

St. Helen’s, being famous for its industrial past in terms of coal, glass and other industries, was already looking into how the digital world might change its economy so the match was a natural one. “Also at times of austerity we wanted to explore how it might reduce the cost burden of our services,” explains Palin.

Getting started

The nuts and bolts of the project’s genesis were simple enough. The council met with O2, the willingness to work from both sides was obvious and the project started from there.

Part of the background to this is Palin’s own background. As the youngest chief executive in the country (aged 33) he had never worked for local government. His background was in strategic economic growth, public/private partnerships and the like, so St. Helen’s made the strategic decision to have a CEO who would think about the long term prospects for the council. It’s also noticeable that St. Helen’s is, notes Palin, the most stable local authority in the country from the point of view of its finances: so getting involved in something new wasn’t the risk it might have been for some places.

The objectives included ascertaining where the region was in terms of some sort of digital benchmark. There was a perception objective: “St. Helen’s is a Northern town where 25-30 years ago 20,000 people were employed by Pilkington’s alone, so we felt there was a perception of the economy of the place we needed to change.”

The third, very practical, objective, was that the authority needed to save £23m over the next two years rising to £40m annually by 2020. The digital environment offered two ways of achieving this: “First through reducing our cost of delivering services, and also reducing costs by having a better connected community that reduces the requirement for accessing services.”

Economic benefit

In fact Palin believes the local economy will grow 10 per cent ahead of projections due to the implementation of digital technology. “What the O2 project demonstrated, unsurprisingly. was that St. Helen’s and its businesses are not major users of technology at the moment. What the data processing showed was that if we could increase the digital usage by our businesses and communities, that would improve productivity overall.”

As a trained economist he acknowledges that precise figures are difficult to forecast, but he cites practical examples. “There was a care home where they used digital devices to collect the data from service users. That improved that company’s performance. Also we have an entrepreneur who is developing an application that reduces the dwell time of logistics operators for deliveries and pickups; on the back of the O2 work we’ve introduced him to some of the big logistics operators in the UK and they’re very interested – so we get an uplift in our economy because of businesses that grow locally that might not have happened before.”

Nuts and bolts

It’s key to understand that St. Helen’s was intended by O2 as a test bed. So, wondered New Statesman Tech, what exactly did it do – and what worked best and worst?

“I was trying to introduce a cultural change that needed to happen here and needs to happen in the public sector overall,” said Palin. “So you have to accept that there will be a failure rate among some of these projects, because that’s the only way you’re going to introduce change.

“In terms of what O2 did, we had a physical presence in the town: we took an under-utilised retail space and turned it into a hub, at which there were a host of events over a three month period. In a non-digital place you need that first contact to encourage people – you can’t assume people will just become digital, the population isn’t there. You need to take some analogue steps before you can become digital.

“We had some events that were focused on how to start a business, how to meet angel investors – the guy developing the app met us through one of those. There were Dragon’s Den type events for young people, so if they thought something could be fixed by a digital initiative O2 provided the cash to do it – and we’re now thinking of turning that process around, so that if we know there’s a problem we go out to the community for solutions.”

O2 also worked with the local college but also provided simple basics like free WiFi in the town so people could use their devices more easily.

“On the practical cost savings side, one thing we looked at was a MyTravel app. As chief executive of the council I know people who aren’t mobile are not dependent through life, and I want to increase their independence; at as young an age as possible we want to encourage that independence. So if you have a 14 year old with special educational needs to travel to college independently rather than with a paid adult, that’s a saving and they’re more likely to stay independent as they get older.

“We have people to train them to travel, and they offer a flipchart. So the dependent person goes from page to page and it physically has pictures of the bus they need, and any landmarks, and because of our duty of care we often have to have someone physically following that person.

“With O2 we’ve worked on an app to digitise the process, meaning the traveller is independent and importantly looks like any other young person because they’re looking at their phone and not a flipchart; second the GPS tracking process tells us whether they’re deviating more than 50 metres from where we were expecting them to go so we don’t need to follow them.” So there is cost saving initially, then further on there’s more as the individual settles into a more independent mode of living, and of course their quality of life improves.

“That’s a tiny example of the sort of thing we were looking for from this product. If O2 gets a product they can take to market out of it, that’s an added benefit.”

The future

This is very much a pilot project: there will be more, and further areas might follow. For the moment, St. Helen’s is on course to deliver those cuts and increases in productivity. O2 believes that replicating the pilot in eight towns in the North could boost the region’s economy by £410m by 2020, while adding similar measures in six Midland towns could bring about an extra £352m in the same time scale. When the chancellor is talking about powerhouses for both the North and the Midland regions, this is presumably worth considering.