Robert Steenson: Enabling digital ambitions across the Scottish public sector

Agilisys recently appointed Robert Steenson as Delivery Director Scotland, a role that will focus on delivering digital transformation for public sector organisations across the country. We caught up with the former Assistant Chief Executive and Executive Director of Enterprise and Communities at North Lanarkshire Council to find out more about his ambitions in his new […]

Agilisys recently appointed Robert Steenson as Delivery Director Scotland, a role that will focus on delivering digital transformation for public sector organisations across the country. We caught up with the former Assistant Chief Executive and Executive Director of Enterprise and Communities at North Lanarkshire Council to find out more about his ambitions in his new role and how he hopes to achieve them.

You’ve recently joined Agilisys from North Lanarkshire Council. Can you please tell us more about your time there and your achievements?

I was Assistant Chief Executive and Executive Director of Enterprise and Communities at North Lanarkshire Council for over five and a half years. During that time, I was responsible for Scotland’s largest Council housing service, a £560m capital programme, delivery of all frontline services, property, planning, leisure and regulatory services and the Councils dedicated Communities service. I also developed and implemented the digital strategy, and led the digital transformation, in partnership with Agilisys.

I was extremely proud to be able to take the digital strategy forward, not just for the council, but for the community as a whole. We had a real focus on improving connectivity and delivering the skills and ability to connect with whatever the council was doing digitally. That’s clearly an ongoing project because it can’t happen in five years!

The progress has been phenomenal and my decision to leave and join Agilisys was difficult but  DigitalNL is at a stage where I felt it was time to move on and let someone else continue the momentum.

How does it feel to be on the ‘other side’ at Agilisys?

To be honest, it doesn’t feel much different. I’ve always been a great believer that people work with people to achieve their tasks and objectives. While I’ve switched from the public to the private sector, I’m still working with individuals and teams who have the same end goals – to unlock the potential of digital for the public sector.

The focus that Agilisys has on bringing products and solutions to the public sector, be that health, police, or local government, is genuinely focused on outcomes. All the discussions I’ve had thus far have been about how we can enable clients to extract the maximum value from any investment in technology. All the talk is about quality, delivery and how we can add value. Key to any partnership is long-term value and our relationship with our clients is always designed to allow them to build for the future.

I hope to be able to add further value to our clients across Scotland by bringing the detailed understanding of how councils work to the table, enabling them to do what they want and need to do.

How do you hope to deliver this value to clients across Scotland?

Scotland, with its 32 unitary authorities, differs from England in that each one carries the same responsibilities for its residents. Multibillion pound Councils like North Lanarkshire and Glasgow have to deliver health and social care, education, environmental services and so on in just the same way as organisations such as Inverclyde or Clackmannanshire with budgets of less than 10% of their largest neighbours. Size has no bearing whatsoever on ambition – or on the responsibilities, demands and pressures that they face – but often the smaller organisations may lack the capacity, finances and skills to deliver the necessary digital transformation on the scale and at the pace that is required or desired.

I see huge value in talking to those who maybe don’t have the resources to move at the pace and scale that’s demanded of all local authorities, irrespective of their size, to see if we can bring them together as a partnership cluster and deliver that transformation on a shared, partnership basis. By doing so, all can benefit and take the leap to becoming a digital council, accelerating the realisation of their ambitions on a joint basis. Agilisys can support these clusters and help to share not only the risks and the financial challenge, but the necessary benefits that may otherwise not be realised.

Does this risk losing an element of local identity?

These potential clusters could be based on geography and/or previous partnerships, so that we’re bringing together those who know and understand each other and share common challenges – and essentially are in it together!

Crucially, we want to share innovation and drive digital benefits, while ensuring each authority retains their local identity.

We’re talking about what goes on behind the scenes, what happens in terms of how data is stored, managed and utilised and how residents communicate with their council and how workflows happen within the council. This is not a marriage of councils. It’s a shared resource that’s about providing the effective tools needed to deliver better outcomes for people, however that’s needed, on a council-by-council basis.

If we take this model to the next level and start to think about how Community Planning Partnership models work across Councils, policing, healthcare, fire and rescue and even the third sector, you end up with a digital community that benefits from all that digital transformation offers.

If we’re talking about the importance of locality and local identity, does social value and community benefit come to the fore?

Sustainable development is vital. I’m not talking about environmental sustainability here, although that’s clearly important, but economic sustainability. North Lanarkshire is a good example. People who work there, but live outside of the authority, earn 20% more than the people who live there. That means the wealth created within the area is taken outside. Organisations, whether it’s a council, Agilisys, construction firms or whoever, have a responsibility to invest local money in local people and local communities. That’s where the social benefit comes from.

North Lanarkshire is currently tendering property contracts worth billions which will extend beyond 10 years. The challenge for the Council and the contractors is to deliver more than bricks and mortar. This applies to all contracts and partnerships. We have a joint responsibility to ensure that those who live in the area benefit from investment – the Council spends on behalf of its residents, and they should benefit from that investment. Increasing local employment, education and skills, opportunities for community involvement, support for community driven improvements – if these can be demonstrated as additional value to any procurement then we will start to really see sustainable economic development.

It’s all about looking at the challenges in each locality and reducing poverty, including in-job poverty, as well as creating opportunities.

Do you have any examples of this social investment from your time at North Lanarkshire?

A good example is the partnership Agilisys put in place with New College Lanarkshire to provide training, internships and employment for local people. This drives real life experiences and opens up meaningful, lasting opportunities.

Agilisys has a unique approach to social investment in terms of committing a proportion of the contract value to invest in community benefits as well as adding that additionality of bringing people in to work as part of the team. Those involved were being trained while working on live projects and delivering value while they were there. That’s much better than simple placements or awareness days.

I speak from experience when I say councils are fed up with the ‘we’ll do some talks in schools’ approach. That has no social value. It’s just ticking a box. Communities need real benefits.

I firmly believe Agilisys is ahead of the curve when it comes to increasing social value, for two reasons. One, because it thinks like the public sector and wants to see social value – it’s not something done to fulfil an obligation, it’s done because it’s the right thing to do. Two, it has the platform and the model from North Lanarkshire and other partners across the UK that works and can be replicated and developed elsewhere.

Finally, what do you hope to achieve in your new role over the coming months?

I simply want to get to a place where I’m helping councils across Scotland to move digital capabilities forward, at reduced cost for each as an individual, so there’s better value in terms of the public pound, in a way that means communities are served better.

We must never lose sight of what a Council really is – staff (mostly local people) and elected members who are representatives of the place and who recognise that they must move forward, become more digitally aware and deliver better outcomes and make life better for the people they deliver services for. If they don’t, people will be worse off. If we can improve access to services, drive innovation in how services are delivered, utilise IoT to support those who need our support most, all through improved digital capability then we can save money, protect and improve frontline services and ensure that we are maintaining jobs in the areas where they are of greatest need. That will be a resounding success in my book.