To say that the last 18 months have been challenging for public sector leaders is an understatement. However, for David Robinson and his colleagues at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, the period has also been hugely rewarding as digital transformation accelerated and the Council’s investment in technology fundamentals paid dividends throughout the pandemic.

David, Barnsley’s Service Director for Customer Information and Digital Services, explains that the Council was already well on the road to implementing its Enabling Technology programme – delivered in partnership with Agilisys – which helped to mobilise everybody when the pandemic hit.

“The Enabling Technology programme was all about building the core foundations that would, amongst other benefits, mobilise our workforce,” explains David. “As a result, we didn’t really have any technology barriers to the sudden requirement to get everybody working from home. We started preparing for the inevitable on the Thursday before the announcement about the country going into lockdown and, by the Monday, everybody was working fairly seamlessly from home. Even the few people that we hadn’t already upgraded.

“Importantly, those foundations included having the skills in the business to deal with the rapid switch. Agilisys makes a big play of upskilling partner teams, and this ethos has always been key to Barnsley and Agilisys’s work together. We also still had the contractual arrangement in place, meaning we could call on Agilisys if needed, which added to the confidence in the team.”

Unlocking the benefits

As the pandemic unfolded, David explains that Barnsley quickly enhanced its use of technology – most notably Microsoft Teams – as the Council’s staff embraced the new ways of working and started to ask for new features to be released. This confidence in the technology also ensured essential services could be spun up rapidly, minimising disruption at an unquestionably tricky time.

“We didn’t have any problems handling incoming calls, for example, as we could set up new contact centres really quickly. We never found ourselves in a situation where we had to put an announcement out saying we were in a pandemic and might not be able to answer your call. We managed the impact really well in those early days.

We also resumed democracy rapidly. By April, we were one of the first councils to host a virtual cabinet meeting. That progressed to full Council meetings and all the associated committee structures being spun up and operating successfully throughout the pandemic.”

David admits that the situation even revealed some unexpected benefits. “Social care case conferences are a good example. They were much better attended and much more popular with service users when held virtually. They found the experience a lot less intimidating than the scenario where loads of people are around a table. That’s been a real bonus that the service will try to hold on to.”

Harnessing the momentum

Reflecting on the past 18 months, Dave says that, in a funny sort of way, Barnsley was lucky in that it hadn’t actually finished its transformation programme – although it wasn’t far off.

“Firstly, we still had the Agilisys support in place. But what was good was the recognition from them that we couldn’t stick to the schedule. Instead, we used the support to help us switch focus to what we needed to do during unprecedented times. That sort of mutual respect, if you like, and the redrawing of boundaries was hugely valuable throughout the pandemic and continues to be now we’re starting to think about what we’re doing next.”

David says that his focus is now on continuing the momentum that gathered during the pandemic to drive further service improvements.

“If I’m honest, the pandemic helped massively in terms of digital transformation, so it’s fitting that we continue to push forward. We might be talking more marginal improvements now in many respects, but it is still moving our transformation along.

“We’re continuing to work with Agilisys, who can provide the necessary horizon scanning capability. Their expertise around Microsoft technologies will be hugely beneficial in continuing the transformation as we work across enhancements such as Windows Virtual Desktop and Windows Hello.

“We’ve bought into the Microsoft ecosystem, so what we’re seeking to do is drive value with the help of people like Agilisys. There are many unused features and a constant stream of additions that we need to exploit, so there’s a big focus on how we map that out over the next couple of years. We still have loads of work around rationalising and pulling things into the estate. It’s really about cherry-picking the Microsoft stack, peeling off all the applications we have and reducing spend on legacy software. We’ve got value to drive out of partners, including Agilisys, Microsoft and others.”

Upcoming challenges

David adds that there are some major new challenges to deal with over the coming months and years. As he points out, hybrid working is a massive talking point, but everyone is still getting to grips with what this means. There’s also a huge part to play around digital exclusion, which he predicts will be one of the public sector’s biggest challenges over the next couple of years. “We’ve made lots of progress towards digital adoption, but the pandemic has highlighted the glaring gaps that exist and the impact it has on people,” he says.

“There’s no escaping the fact that there are some major challenges ahead. As we move through the pandemic recovery, we’ll be looking at multiple technologies to help us deal with them. We’re working closely with Agilisys to deliver efficiencies through robotic process automation (RPA). Chatbots are also being looked into, and data is undoubtedly a major area, especially in care., for example. We’ve done some really good work on data with our health partners through the pandemic, so let’s keep hold of that momentum and really build that intelligence. If we’re to drive value from Microsoft, we should be looking at how we utilise data in Azure and Power BI to visualise it.”

Bringing the conversation full circle, David says this next phase of work is enabled because the foundations are in place. He concludes by saying: “Across the Council, from the workforce to elected members and residents, people are now more confident in digital. Their hand has been forced to some degree as they’ve had to do all sorts of activities digitally during the pandemic, but they are more confident, so we need to ride that wave. Do that, with the help of partners like Agilisys, and we can drive the transformation that will enable us to meet our 2030 objectives.”