Archives for category: technology and communications

My resolution this year is to read more books. At least one a month. So far, so good.

I still love a real book. You can’t beat a good second-hand bargain from a charity shop – with real pages, well-thumbed (and well-loved?) by previous owners.

But it is 2017, and I like to read on my tablet too. It’s convenient.

So like a lot of people, when it comes to reading, I’m a little bit old school and a little bit new school. Part analogue, part digital.

Which brings me to the point of this article. A lot of public services are trying to let their customers do more online.

It’s not always about saving money. Sometimes, it’s about meeting expectations.

And there’s often a balance between holding onto the more traditional parts of a service that people still value, while developing the new things that people expect. Providing services that are part analogue, part digital.

Libraries are a good example of that.

a social responsibility?

Most of us have used our local library at some point. I used mine the most when my children were young.

We’d spend ages picking our books, and it was a lovely weekly ritual. All those stories. Endless possibilities and adventures. It was great.

These days, you can do a lot in a library. Watch archived TV footage (we’ve got a fabulous British Film Institute resource in Wrexham).

Use the internet. Listen to music. Take part in workshops

But if you’re over 40, you can probably remember when libraries were all about the books. No computers. No films. No wi-fi.

You went there for the books. That was it.

Or was it?

For a lot of people, the physical act of going and choosing a book was part of the enjoyment. A quiet activity. But a social one all the same.

I think that’s still true. A lot of people still value the experience of going to the library, and they remain important physical spaces.

They fulfil a social need – not just an informational one.

For a lot of customers, it’s not just about finding something to read. It’s about going to the library to find something to read.

Libraries also provide lots of group activities – workshops, courses and clubs (we have a really popular coding club at Wrexham Library for example).

Again, a lot of people really enjoy the experience of going to the library to learn. It’s an important social thing.

the digital customer

But that doesn’t mean customers don’t expect to access library services online as well. They do. And libraries have worked hard to oblige.

For example, you can do a lot of things through the libraries section of our website –

You can:

  • Find books and check their availability across Wrexham and the rest of North Wales.
  • Renew or reserve books.
  • Get recommendations using the ‘who else writes like this?’ tool (great if you’ve read all the books by your favourite author) or the ‘who next?’ tool (useful if your child needs to progress to the next level).
  • Download e-books via services like Borrowbox and Welsh Libraries.
  • Download e-magazines and comics (this can save you an awful lot of money over time – see what the Welsh Libraries website has to say).
  • View extracts from over 10 million research and academic articles.
  • Find information on family history and ancestry – without having to pay a subscription.

That’s pretty good. And the kind of service that a lot of customers – who do their shopping, banking and other daily tasks online – would expect.

In future, you’ll probably see more creative digital skills being taught and practiced at libraries. Coding clubs, gaming, 3D printing and so on.

So as well as accessing library services digitally, more people will go to libraries to collaborate and get creative with digital technologies.

giving people what they want

So the point I’m trying to make, is that libraries are doing a great job of retaining the traditional things that customers value (e.g. the experience of going to the library), while developing the new things that customers expect (e.g. online services).

There’s probably a lesson here for all public services.

An analogy might be the iPhone. The basic concept hasn’t changed that much since its launch in 2007. It’s retained the things that Apple customers love (design, build quality, beautiful interface).

But it’s also continually evolved to make innovative use of technology and keep pace (or even shape) consumer expectations – introducing features like Siri, pressure-sensitive touch technology and so on.

It might seem odd to compare a library to a mobile phone. But their success boils down to the same thing: understanding customers.

What happened to the paperless office?

There isn’t much paper on my desk. But there is some.

Which is strange, because like many people, I once thought that paper would’ve pretty much disappeared from the workplace by now.

It was back in the 1970s that futurists first predicted the paperless office. A vision of clean minimalist workspaces, where things were neat, tidy and lean.

Computers would replace typewriters, ushering in a new age of digital communication.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Almost, but not quite.

We’ve got the computers, but step into any office and you’ll probably find paper still hanging in there.

Which is hard to explain.

displaced, not replaced?

The basis for predictions about the paperless office was technology.

People could see how networked computers would provide new ways to communicate and record information. And maybe save money in the process.

It was a case of old replaced by new.

And environmental benefits (paper costs trees) boosted the argument.

But despite email, social media and all the other technology integral to how we now work, there’s still paper on my desk.

Nowhere near the amount you would see if it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it is still there.

And while paper usage will continue to fall, I don’t think it’s going to completely disappear. Not for a long time.

Organisations don’t use paper for many of the things they used to – especially tasks that require it in quantity – and that makes perfect sense.

At Wrexham Council for example, we don’t provide paper copies of committee reports and agendas anymore.

Our residents’ newsletter is published online, instead of being printed.

We have fewer printers and photo-copiers in our offices.

And we’re making more of our services available online, reducing the use of paper forms and administration in the process.

But the fact is, people still prefer paper for certain things.

getting your thoughts down

When you go to a meeting, you’ll see two types of people – those tapping on tablets or phones, and those scribbling on notepads.

Many (most?) of the people with the notepads probably have a phone or tablet too, but they choose paper.

For many, scribbling down thoughts, ideas and info is part of their thinking process. Their creative process.

And the effortless freedom that a pen and paper gives you – you can write and sketch anything you want, however you want – is hard to match.

Technology is evolving all the time, but when it comes to getting those first thoughts and ideas down, paper is still the preferred tool for the job for many people.

will we ever work in a paperless office?

We’ve reduced our paper usage massively at Wrexham Council over the past decade, and we’re still reducing it.

The shift from print to digital continues, enabled by technology and driven by the need to increase productivity and save money.

But why is it taking so long to reach the paperless utopia that people envisaged in the 1970s?

Why is paper still hanging on in the workplace?

I don’t know.

Sometimes, new technology doesn’t replace old technology. Rather it displaces it, pushing it into a lesser role.

And there’s something else about pen and paper that might explain its endurance in the workplace.

Unlike other technologies, it rarely breaks.

Like every organisation, we’re always looking at how technology can help us do our job.

How it can make us more productive.

Innovation is one of our key values (take a look at our Council Plan). So is flexibility.

And, if we use it wisely, technology can make us far more innovative and flexible in how we work. And that can make us more productive.

However, it’s easy to start thinking that productivity starts with technology. You adopt a snazzy new tool or platform, and then wait for the productivity explosion.

It doesn’t work out.

Because shiny new tools don’t make people more productive. Not by themselves.

putting a man on the moon

A colleague of mine listened to a talk by Dave Coplin of Microsoft recently. He signposted me to the footage on YouTube, and it’s really interesting.

One of the key points Mr Coplin makes is that a lot of employers miss the point in thinking productivity is driven by technology.

But it’s not. It’s driven by purpose.

He cites that famous story about former US president John F Kennedy asking a cleaner at NASA what he does. “I’m helping to put a man on the moon” he replies.

Basically, employees with purpose are productive. So the purpose needs to be there first, and then you use technology in a way that helps make that purpose more achievable.

That makes a lot of sense, and articulates something we’re trying to achieve here at Wrexham Council.

At every opportunity, we try and communicate our values and objectives to employees, and implement projects and changes that allow them to live those values.

So hopefully – over time – everyone starts to get a clear sense of where we’re trying to get to.

It’s not easy. Particularly during moments of organisational change. But there’s no doubt in my mind that productivity is driven by purpose.

the right tools?

So we’re trying to embed that sense of purpose here at Wrexham Council. But what about using technology to make that purpose more achievable?

Well. We’re making progress.

We’ve been using technology to encourage ‘agile’ working for a while now.

Employees can access emails, tools and systems remotely, or work from ‘hot-desks’ (not just in council buildings, but in some instances at partner agencies like our local hospital).

This reduces the need to travel to and from a single workplace, and helps them stay closer to the locations and customers they need to reach.

And we’ve just given all employees access to social media. A small step in the grand scale of things, but an important one for us – allowing colleagues to tap into relevant content on Twitter, YouTube and so on.

We’ve also developed a consultation tool with our partners called Your Voice Wrexham.

Not because the technology is there, but because one of our missions is to put our customers at the heart of our decision-making. That means understanding their views on key topics.

So we’ve developed Your Voice Wrexham to help us gather those views and feed them into our decision-making processes. Topics like our budget proposals for 2015-16.

Without the technology, it would be a lot more difficult to understand how customers feel.

So the key point is this.

When it comes to productivity, technology is just the oil on the gears. It’s purpose that really makes people productive.

A few months ago, I posted an article called ‘Becoming Digital.’

It got 51 shares on LinkedIn, so I’m guessing it struck a chord?

I talked about the challenges – and opportunities – that councils face in their quest to foster truly digital cultures. And I promised to keep you posted on our progress here in Wrexham.

One of the most exciting things we’ve been working on since that first article is an online customer service portal.

The portal – called My Account – will provide a personalised experience for people who want to access our services online.

We’re going for a soft launch – offering things like council tax and benefits claims – and then gradually building the range of things people can use the portal for.

It’ll look and feel like part of our website, and the technology behind it is very clever.

We’re not the first council to do this. Far from it. But it’s an important step in our digital journey.

My Account screen shot

how will it help our customers?

Simple question. Simple(ish) answer.

A lot of people expect to be able to do certain things online. A lot of people prefer to do things online.

Pay for stuff. Apply for stuff. Book stuff. And so on.

Generally speaking, doing stuff online is convenient. You can do it in on your laptop, tablet or phone in front of the TV, on the commute to work or whenever you like – just so long as you have an internet connection.

For those people, making our services available online – in a way that’s intuitive and easy – will meet their expectations.

They’ll get the convenience they want.

However, not everyone likes to do things online.

So when it comes to switching the focus to digital, a lot of organisations talk about ‘channel shift.’

They’re talking about the need to get out there and actively encourage some customers to try the digital option.

Take the Barclays ‘digital eagles’ for example.

The company wants more customers to access its services digitally – and it realises it needs to help certain groups do that. Customers who might not be comfortable using online services.

Achieving this channel-shift is probably a bigger challenge than the technology. It doesn’t happen on its own.

We’ve been running workshops at our customer contact centre to show people how to use our new system, along with other basic skills – like how to set up and manage an email account.

They’ve been really popular, and it’s great to see people lose their fear of the technology – and suddenly grasp the benefits that online services can offer.

ok…so how does it help wrexham council?

It helps us in two ways.

It’ll help us understand our customers better.

And it’ll save us money.

The cost of handling enquiries face-to-face or over the phone is – typically – far more expensive than online.

National comparisons suggest the following averages…

• Face-to-face = £8.62 per enquiry
• Telephone = £2.83 per enquiry
• Online = £0.15 per enquiry

We’ve done our sums, and we think My Account will save us £38,000 in the first year, £141,000 in the second year and £210,000 in the third year.

At a time when public sector budgets are shrinking, those savings are going to be important.

It doesn’t mean we can – or want – to do away with one-to-one interaction where its needed. Algorithms and artificial intelligence can’t solve everything.

But for services suited to the internet, encouraging customers to get online will save us money or free it up for where it’s really needed.

The other big win for us is the data.

The portal will help us understand what services different sets of customers use, when they use them, how often and so on.

That could help us manage those services, predict peaks and dips in demand, and target resources.

We’re not talking ‘big brother’ stuff. Just the kind of thing most digitally enabled service providers do – all within the bounds of data protection and with terms and conditions explained to the customer.

The data will help us deliver services better.

So come to think of it, it’s the customer who wins in the end on all counts.

That’s got to be a good thing.

Sprout Social – one of the tools we’re using to develop our social media analysis.


They say that companies ‘born’ on the internet have an easier time embracing digital opportunities than companies born offline.

Businesses like Amazon, Mashable and Buzzfeed have digital in their DNA. And find it easier to capitalise on web-technology than counterparts who didn’t start life on the net.

Obviously, local government wasn’t born online.

It was born when ‘tweeting’ was something the birds did.

So embracing the exponentially growing trends and possibilities offered by digital can be painful for government.

And the most painful part of all? Changing mindsets.

Let me take a Q&A approach to this…

isn’t digital just a marketing thing?

Generally speaking, it used to be seen as something that whizzy creatives did to build and engage audiences.

But what started as a marketing discpline has grown way beyond that. Digital is now a business model.

It can influence business decisions at almost every level of an organisation.

how so?

Digital allows us to understand customers in a way that simply isn’t possible offline.

We can collect data, understand what our customers want, think and do. And how they interact with us and use our services.

We can use that data to shape how we work.

We can even use that data to predict demand in the future…and manage our resources accordingly.

How clever is that?

sounds a bit ‘big brother’?

Not at all. It’s not about spying on people.

It’s about improving what we do by understanding how customers are engaging with the products, services and information we provide.

very nice..but is it worth the pain?


More and more consumers expect to be able to do more and more online. We have to meet that expectation.

This graphic – kindly provided by PwC – illustrates the point.

The number of people converted to digital – or born digital (‘digital natives’) – is only going to rise.


Image provided by PwC.

Image provided by PwC.


We also need to save money. Providing services digitally is often cheaper than traditional phone and face-to-face contact.

you said ‘mindset’ was  the biggest challenge…what do you mean?

As I’ve said, government was born offline.

So we haven’t grown up with digital in our DNA.

Take a look at this talk by McKinsey’s David Edelman. Most of the challenges he talks about are cultural, rather than technical.

We need to shift our mindset so we think digital first.

With every strategy, product, project or service, we need to start with the question “how can digital techniques guide, support or deliver this piece of work?”

And we need to shift the balance of our ICT policies and infrastructure from ‘policing’ to ‘enablement.’

In other words, we need to redefine the objective of ICT so the emphasis is on giving teams the ideas, inspiration, knowledge and freedom to make best use of digital technology.

so what’s your plan in wrexham?

Like many other councils, we’re just starting out on our digital journey.

We’ve used web-technology in some creative and interesting ways over the years, but it hasn’t really shaped our organisational culture or business strategy until now.

We’ve been looking closely at other organisations that are further along this journey than us (both private and public sector), and we’ll be using their experiences to help shift our mindset even more towards digital in the coming months.

Our customer service team is also developing an online portal that will provide a far more personalised experience for residents.

And our Assets and Economic Development department is piloting various cloud-based tools for social media analysis, customer sentiment insight and other uses.

We’re just starting out. It might not be easy. But our journey into digital is going to be very exciting…for us and our customers.

I’ll keep you posted.

A recent poll by the Booktrust suggests less and less young parents are reading to their children.

I hope it’s not true. Because being able to tell a story can make so many things possible.

A good story – well told – can change our perception and behaviour.

A good story can change the world.

And it can certainly change an organisation.

In local government, we sometimes find that one story can change the way we perceive a colleague, client or situation.

But how often does it happen? How often does local government really connect with people through its storytelling – including its own employees?

Not as often as we’d like.

We communicate the science, processes and the whys and wherefores of what we’re doing.

We unleash the ultra-knowledgeable, who communicate the data and detail behind strategies and projects.

But how often does any of this really connect?

In their book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath look at why some ideas cut the mustard…and others don’t.

They use the SUCCES(s) acronym:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

In this blog-post, I’m going to look at the ‘simple’ and ‘emotional’ elements.

Plus the benefit of communicating corporate messages through the stories of individuals.

simple is good

So how can we promote positive cultural and behavioural change in our organisations by telling stories in a way that sticks?

One technique identified by the Heath brothers is to make your story memorable through simplicity.

It’s not the sound-bite traditionally loved by marketers that they advocate, but the plain old proverb.

Proverbs are a great way to tell a story in a simple, profound and memorable way.

“Do as you would be done by.” That one from my grandmother has always stuck with me…

But back to the point.

One of the biggest communication problems we have in the public sector is that we struggle with ‘simple.’ We often find it hard to impart our knowledge in a clean, succinct and digestible way.

Chip and Dan call it ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ – where people feel compelled to impart their professional knowledge in considerable detail (because they have it at their disposal), despite the fact no-one will understand it.

And when you communicate in too much detail, it’s hard to get much feeling into your message. Which means it’s even less likely to stick.

put feelings first

In his book SwitchWant Your Organisation to Change?, Dan Heath highlights the benefits of putting feelings first.

In other words, thinking about the emotional message you want to get across before the detail.

Heath talks about it in the film clip below. It definitely provides food for thought.

And think about this…

History is built on facts and detail. Right?

Well, maybe it connects with people best when it’s built on feelings first?

Terry Deary – author of Horrible Histories  – has captured the imagination of millions of youngsters for the past 20 years. He’s succeeded where many academics have failed.

Why? By instilling edginess, comedy and emotion into his storytelling. People can relate to what he says and it becomes memorable.

tell stories through people

People are at the heart of what we do in the public sector.

If one person – an employee or customer – is given a platform to talk about a positive experience with empathy and feeling, it can effect a more positive change within our organisation than any amount of data or reasoning.

Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business in the USA, says that stories are “up to 22 times more effective than facts alone.”

Obvious, when you think about it. But so easy to forget.

We’re in a time of unprecedented change in local government. We are working differently, delivering services differently and thinking differently.

At Wrexham Council, one of the ways we’re achieving that cultural shift is by telling simple, emotional stories that stick.

And by encouraging our employees and customers to share their stories.

Up to now, maybe the public sector hasn’t felt comfortable putting feeling into its messages.

I’ve got a feeling (no pun intended) that’s about to change.

Like the Heath brothers suggest, our stories must have lasting impact.

Heard the phrase? It’s used to describe technologies that could have a major impact on certain business sectors.

If you step onto any high street in Britain, you’ll probably see the effects of a disruptive technology right now: e-commerce.

I’m talking about the impact of online shopping on high street retail.

Now don’t get me wrong. E-commerce is an amazing development that’s brought many benefits to consumers and businesses. I shop online. Chances are, you do too.

But the impact on the high street is tangible. Empty shops and closing-down sales  are a common story.

Coupled with busier lifestyles, technology  is changing the way we shop.

The Economist Intelligence Unit is just one of many to predict the continued growth of online shopping.

In the 2012 report Retail 2022, it predicted that one in three purchases will be made using the internet – and that the use of mobile apps and tools to find goods and compare prices will reach unprecedented levels.

It’s going to be an ultra-competitive world.

So that’s the future. But do we have to wait for it?

No. We can try and make the transition less painful.

We can take the initiative and start to evolve our high streets now – ensuring they have a clear function in our communities in the future

In Wrexham, we’re about to embark on some pretty exciting projects that will help us do that.

We’ve been awarded £10 million over three years to help regenerate Wrexham town centre, and the neighbouring communities of Hightown and Caia Park.

The money will come from the Welsh Government regeneration scheme Vibrant and Viable Places, and will be used to help create jobs, get people back into work, increase affordable housing and improve community facilities.

The estimated value of the project is around £27 million, with match-funding from other sectors.

For a town the size of Wrexham, that’s really big money. And it could make a huge difference.

Welsh Government Minister for Housing and Regeneration, Carl Sargeant, says regenerating town centres “…is about a lot more than filling empty shops.”

He’s right. It’s about re-imagining the role of town centres, and how they can evolve as places of business, housing, education and leisure.

More specifically, it’s about changing the balance between housing and retail, so we can grow the residential population within our centres. This in-turn will generate need and demand for services, which in-turn will help sustain businesses.

So that’s what we’re going to do.

We’re also pulling on the expertise of academics to get a better understanding of the future of our high streets.

We’ve teamed up with Manchester Metropolitan University as part of its High Street UK 2020 project.

Over six years the university will study Wrexham – along with nine other towns and cities in the UK – to develop new models that town centres might evolve towards as e-commerce and out-of-town shopping continue to have an impact.

The project is being led by Professor Cathy Parker, who will work closely with Wrexham Council’s economic development team.

To sum things up, technology will continue to evolve. Which in turn, will continue to change consumer habits and the way we shop. Which in turn, will continue to impact on traditional high street shopping.

But rather than resign our town centres to their fate, we are looking to re-imagine their role in our communities.

Look out for my next post, when I’ll be looking at some other big, strategic regeneration projects in Wrexham.

Social media expert Andrew Davis

Andrew Davis is one of the UK’s leading authorities on digital and social media.

Content is still king.

Whatever the medium – blog, micro-blog, pictures, film – you still need something to say.

That was the message I took away after listening to social media expert Andrew Davis recently.

Andrew was guest speaker at the Ignite Your Business 2013 event at Glyndwr University in Wrexham.

The event was aimed at SMEs, but I had a feeling that – as a local government chief  exec – I could learn something too.

I was right. It was brilliant. And I wanted to know more. So I’ve been in touch with Andrew to talk further about his ideas around ‘content.’

“Usually I train organisations for a day or two, so getting everything across in 90 minutes – benefits and disadvantages of social media, relevant examples and simple actions – would be tricky.

“So I decided to focus on one thing that everyone in the audience could do, regardless of size – and that was building content.”

So how does Andrew define ‘content’?

“When people talk about ‘content’ they tend to focus on videos.

“Even though videos are great and I would highly recommend them, I think there are stumbling blocks for SMEs regarding creating videos. These tend to be cost of equipment, how to use equipment and what to say in front of the camera.

“Also, some people are camera-shy.

“When I refer to ‘content’ I mean anything that can go online. As well as videos, some of the types of content I made reference to on the day included text, images and podcasts.

“Text is still key, and is great for the search engines. Everyone likes to look at images and, with smart-phones being cameras, creating them is easy.

“And podcasts are becoming popular again too. They’re like having your own radio show.”

So what should people write about? Take pictures of? Record?

“If you’re just getting started online, think ‘what content can I provide to my users so I can add value?’

“Once you’ve done that, then you can think about which platforms to use. “

So here I am, creating content on this blog. And hopefully adding value to your day 🙂

Are a lot of public sector chief execs out of touch with the digital world?

Is that a provocative question? Or just true?

Read on…

The best way to begin this post is with a confession.

I’m a little apprehensive about blogging.

Not because I’m a Luddite. Not because it doesn’t interest me.

There are stacks of videos on YouTube that reflect how web-technology is changing our lives – just like the one above.

I see the power of social platforms and behaviour-trends on the internet, and I’m convinced about the potential benefits to public sector organisations.

But – I suspect like many public sector chief execs – I’m a little wary about getting involved personally.

I’ve enjoyed seeing colleagues immerse themselves in this world of hash-tags. I’m excited about the skills and ideas we’re developing within Wrexham County Borough Council as a result.

But I’ve never quite been sure if I should get involved myself.

And it goes a little deeper than that.

Chief executives lead. Being a leader involves mitigating the risks to your organisation. And mitigating risk is about managing the variables and the unknowns as much as possible.

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but many public sector CEOs and senior managers worry about the way comments, issues and ideas can take on a life of their own once a conversation develops around them on social media.

The digital universe is vast. Just take a look at this diagram. It demonstrates the huge array of digital communications platforms on offer.

It’s the tip of the iceberg. And a little daunting. But I think public sector chief execs should be exploring this ever-growing environment.

'The Conversation Prism' by JESS3 and Brian Solis.

I believe that if you don’t encourage your organisation to experiment with the wealth of digital tools out there, you could be stifling creativity. And potentially putting the brakes on progress.

Do you risk steering your organisation to a place that’s completely out of touch with consumers? Maybe the risk doesn’t seem tangible, but it’s certainly there.

For me, the pace of change in society has become supercharged by technology. A little out-of-touch today could translate into massively out-of-touch tomorrow.

“Fine”, you might say. “My communications and marketing people are already immersed in this. They’ll make sure the organisation acquires the skills it needs.”

But I’m beginning to feel that isn’t enough.

To truly encourage creative use of digital tools and techniques within their organisation, public sector execs should embrace them too. They should develop their own individual knowledge, and use these tools in their day-to-day work.

A lot of private sector leaders have been blogging, tweeting and posting for years. I’m not so sure it’s ‘the norm’ in the UK public sector yet.

The fact is, it’s not enough to leave it to ‘the communications people.’ We’re all communications people.

And if we – as leaders – don’t understand the possibilities presented by social media and other digital tools and phenomena, will we ever truly encourage and grow their use within our organisations?

I won’t be the world’s most prolific blogger. I might not keep you on the edge of your seat (although I’ll try).

But I’m determined to grow my own skills, and help encourage the use of creative web platforms and tools within our organisation.

And to go back to my original question…well?

I hope you enjoy my blog over the coming months 🙂

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