Embedding digital across Kingston and Sutton councils

Steve O’Connor our Chief Digital and Information Officer sets out how we have been transforming our digital approach for the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames and the London Borough of Sutton.

When I first joined Kingston Council in early 2020, placing user-centred design at the heart of our work was already on my mind.

More than a year later, and in spite of the challenges that the pandemic has thrown at us, it’s exciting to see how far we’ve come in achieving our goal. 

Working more in the open was also a key consideration. So in that spirit, I’m going to tell you how we’ve established digital culture within Kingston and Sutton councils, and what’s coming up next.

Building digital capability within the team

At the core of what we’ve been doing is building a digital culture that puts the user at the heart of everything we do.

When COVID-19 hit this time last year, we went immediately into response mode. Our resources were rapidly funneled towards supporting the challenges posed by COVID. Our teams were building digital solutions to support the urgent response of both councils – from requesting help, to registering as a volunteer, through to enabling the delivery of food and support.  

As we emerged from the first lockdown, we applied what we had learnt through the COVID-19 response work and kicked off Digital Transformers, a program to reflect on where we were and where we would like to get to. Taking a service design approach ensured our focus was firmly fixed on the digital delivery we offer to both councils. We reviewed our end-to-end service from the perspective of our users (including service areas such as Housing and Health and Social Care), our residents and local businesses, and also our staff who are delivering the service. This 360 perspective helped us to identify opportunities in terms of organisational structures, working practices, internal processes and overall governance.

A key consideration was the capability and capacity of the team needed to design and deliver user-centred services. We were very fortunate to begin the process with a talented pool of people, who needed a little support to develop into more specialist digital roles. To do this we organised mentoring and coaching for people to move into digital and user-centred design roles including delivery managers, service designers and user researchers. As a result, we now have skills and capabilities that we just didn’t have this time last year. 

Establishing a digital culture

Previously, services were built in a very functional way. We would work with a part of the council on the build and the end-user would be consulted somewhere during the process, but we didn’t go as far as conducting proper user research or user testing.

Today, we’ve not only invested in new digital roles and capabilities, but we’ve also built our processes to be more user driven. It’s been quite a big cultural shift, but it has meant that we’re now thinking carefully about how we design our services. Working across the full spectrum – from improving everyday council services, making them easier to do online, to fundamental work such as social care and the role of digital within that, to more innovative work using sensors and IoT (Internet of Things). This is work that really makes a difference to people’s lives. You can very quickly see the impact of your work.

We have also put digital at the heart of transformation at both Kingston and Sutton councils. Previously digital was seen as a separate function, whereas now digital is considered a key component of all transformation work. We have embedded a new agile process into our ways of working, from pre-discovery through to live. Whereas before a service might come to us with a solution, we now work with the service team to articulate the problem they are trying to solve. Through multi-disciplinary teams we dedicate time for Discovery to properly understand the needs of the user, the goals of the service, and the current systems. We then undertake co-design with users and stakeholders to ideate solutions and develop a design hypothesis that we can be tested throughout Alpha. At the end of Alpha, we will have a fully thought through ‘service vision’ which can be taken forward.

What’s coming up

It’s an exciting time for both councils as we continue to build capability in the existing team as well as grow the team further. 

There are so many opportunities for digital to make a difference to people’s lives. We’re about to scale up rapidly as we work on a number of projects across the whole spectrum of council services, but more on that to come.

As part of our new dedication to working in the open, you can look forward to reading blogs from us about:

  • The digital projects and services we’re working on
  • Our process, methodologies and workflow
  • Opportunities to join our growing digital team

We’ll also be talking about the work we’re doing on our technology, such as moving to the cloud and establishing new capabilities around data.

Follow our progress

Local government has a brilliant culture of sharing, so we want to start working more openly and to share what we’re doing with the community. We’re also keen to make it a two-way conversation, where we can learn from others. This site is the first step for us, and will be the new home of our blog posts, weeknotes and, hopefully one day soon, recordings of show and tells and more.

We’ve also recently launched a Twitter profile for the digital team here at Kingston and Sutton. It’s early days but you can follow us at @ksdigital01.

Steve O'Connor

Steve O’Connor

Chief Digital and Information Officer

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