“The shift in culture has been phenomenal, right across the council.”

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Alison Hughes is Assistant Director for ICT, Digital and Customer at Liverpool City Council. Alison and her teams have been at the forefront of the council’s technological response to Covid-19. Here she tells us about the impact the pandemic has had on how the council delivers ICT services, and how the experience has brought out the very best in colleagues.

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If you had told me in January, when I started my job with Liverpool, that within three months the council would be supporting around 4,000 of its 5,000+ workforce to work from home everyday, I would not — could not — have believed you.

For while plans were well underway for a shift to working agile (and by that I mean being able to work from home, different offices or even coffee shops) and we were moving more and more of our services online via Liverpool.gov.uk, when the coronavirus crisis hit our ICT service was still two thirds of the way through a programme to implement Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI — meaning you can get onto the network from different locations) and we were not ‘ready’ for an overnight change to how we delivered remote working to staff.

We listened closely however as the crisis started to unfold and we used what advanced warning we did have to best effect.

As soon as it became clear just how serious the crisis was going to get — particularly in the two to three weeks before the lockdown — intensive work began on a solution to support our workforce.

It meant that, by the time the Prime Minister made his announcement on Monday 23 March, our ICT service was about ready to push the button on a temporary remote access solution that would enable 1500 + previously office based staff to securely access our network remotely… every day…. from personal devices… and to do all of the work they needed to do from home. It was a huge undertaking, delivered quickly and at very low cost and I am extremely proud of my team for responding so fast, and so effectively, under such pressure.

The rest of our workforce — that’s around 2,500 staff — were able to access the network via council laptops, and we procured and distributed an extra 350 devices for priority one staff in the first two weeks of the crisis. No mean feat when you consider the competition for devices from across the country and beyond.

As you can imagine, we have had to make significant changes to ICT infrastructure to cope with unprecedented demand for home working, and, like many teams across the council, we have had our fair share of stressful days, with ICT staff even working through the night to make sure our systems could cope come morning, when people logged on. I am proud of the effort of each and every member of my team.

The council’s 90+ Contact Centre staff were supported by ICT to start delivering their service from home and more than 60 staff who normally offer face-to-face customer service within the city’s One Stop Shops were set up to work from home for the first time, making and receiving calls related to emergency food deliveries, as well as Blue Badge and Revenue and Benefit queries. This has helped to reduce the burden on contact centre colleagues considerably and staff should be commended for going outside their comfort zone, using unfamiliar technology, to deliver a service under intense pressure.

The team has had wonderful feedback from residents about the support they have received from staff at this frightening time.

Our Digital Team has faced a constant challenge in ensuring that our website is kept up to date with accurate information for residents. They have set up web forms and created processes for completely new service requirements at very short notice, and worked with suppliers to implement a new system to manage requests for Covid-19 support from residents. They too have earned my gratitude and thanks!

And just last week we successfully live streamed a council meeting for the first time — a great example of collaboration between ICT, Committee Services and Communications. Over 360 people tuned into watch our Planning Committee, and over 7000 minutes of the meeting were viewed in total. That’s fantastic engagement in how the council makes democratic decisions.

Coronavirus has accelerated change, yes, but what I admire the most is how that change has been embraced by the workforce.The shift in culture has been phenomenal, right across the council.

We have focused on what is most important to our residents and made sure that these things happened quickly. We have embraced virtual meetings, used new tools like Zoom, SKYPE for Business and Microsoft Teams, and shown tenacity and problem-solving skills like never before. The council’s Staff Facebook page has been hugely successful, with great examples of staff helping each other to solve technical difficulties and coming up with solutions, without any intervention from ICT. Staff have also used it to share positive feedback about ICT which has boosted morale during long working days.

Microsoft Teams is being fully rolled out, with far less support than we envisaged and staff have pragmatically ‘given it a go’.

We have learned that we can move much more quickly to embrace new technology than we previously thought and that our people are amazingly resilient and resourceful. This crisis has broken down service silos and generated a spirit of togetherness and sense of purpose that has helped us to overcome challenges. We must harness this for the future!

There is without doubt a greater appreciation of the important role that ICT can play in our lives in general. The family Zoom chats, Friday night quizzes and online home schooling tell their own story. We need to exploit this and think about how we can use it more in our new ‘business as usual’.

Above all, the most important change that I have seen is the time taken to say “thank you”. For all the extra effort, for going that additional distance, for recognising that this is a difficult time for everybody. Yes, it has been a crisis, but it by coming together we are not letting it beat us.

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A little more about Alison:

Alison Hughes is Assistant Director for ICT, Digital and Customer at Liverpool City Council, overseeing the council’s contact centre, and face-to-face customer services through One Stop shops, as well as digital and ICT services. Alison is a Vice President of SOCITM (Society for Innovation, Technology and Modernisation).