In conversation with Paul Parkinson: Part 2

Emily Schilling
by Emily Schilling 6 October 2020

Read part one of Paul's interview here

How would you describe the current digital and technology applications used by your housing team?

I'd say it's up to date. Tried and tested, but certainly not cutting edge. We’re followers, not leaders.

How involved are the housing team in your digital strategy?

Our digital strategy is across the council, not just the housing department. What makes it easy for the housing team is we have a sector road map. While if you work in planning or environmental health there’s really no leading edge. You've just got find out what you can and try your best. It's a very tricky balance to get your digital strategy right in a council, but in housing we play a major part because we have direction.

Has your digital strategy changed Since COVID-19? If so, how?

It’s accelerated. The key housing management and asset management products were already in motion, but Covid-19 has accelerated that. So rather than being a resource led rollout, Covid-19 has made it a demand led roll out – your actual teams are saying ‘give me the technology we need’ and when you give them technology they pick it up and run. It's really great to see, because historically you would bring in something new and you’d have a massive training program. People would be reluctant, but since Covid-19 it's flipped. People are hungry for digital now, which makes it fantastic. So, it's really speed things up.

What are the barriers to digital transformation in your local authority and how are you overcoming these?

For any local authority, the barriers are always resource and funding. So, if your IT team is not significantly large, but are dealing with lots of propriety systems, the amount of time IT tech people can spend to roll out or enhance these systems is a significant barrier.

As always, we’re restricted by finance, and we can’t buy in anything that isn’t tried and tested. We’ve got to know it works because we’ve got to spend the money carefully.

What technology practice will be most significant in driving digital changing your housing team in the coming year?

The short-term housing department didn't have a lot of IT investment before I started, so I brought in things like DRS for repairs and what's called Total Mobile for all the services within housing. So, we've got those set up, but really we're in the refining stage of those at the moment. Whilst we could be looking at Big Data and Analytics, at the moment it's more about refining what we already have to produce greater customer service and greater efficiency.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience in revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two?

Yes, I'm leading a digital transformation - certainly for housing and then I also have significant input into the council wide one. I think it's a symbiotic relationship, between customer experience and operational efficiency, so you can create a better customer experience. You've got plenty of customers that want a digital experience, so you need quality product to hardwire that behaviour to keep them digital.

We do not really have a revenue growth element to it, it's more a balance between customer service, customer experience and creating efficiencies along the way. How do you balance the two? Well, as I say that is about understanding the needs of your customer. You've got to recognize the experience, so there's no point keep inserting digital tech without taking a step back and saying have I gained efficiencies?

What does successful digital transformation of the housing service look like in your opinion?

Success can only be based on your company’s objectives - as a sector I don’t think there’s one answer. A very strong objective would be fully digital or 80% digital, which I think can be achieved but it’s also about understanding what your customer actually wants as well, not just to be driven by the love of technology, or the fact that you feel you should be doing it.

So, success for me would be choice for the customer, positive satisfaction results for your digital offer and a medium term pay back on investment.

Do you collaborate with other local authorities on your digital strategy?

There’s two different levels of collaboration. With local authorities, we collaborate in terms of discussion and shared experience. We compare notes and copy each other. We’ve got no scruples in trying to mirror another local authority and have a conversation about what they achieved.

There’s also sharing finance or development costs, which is what we did when I worked at Futures. But with local authorities we tend to discuss alongside rather than having a shared investment project.

How would you then have those conversations, would you reach out directly to other deputy CEO 's or other directors?

During the good old days (pre-coronavirus) you would have a site visit wouldn't you? Just spend a couple of hours and look at their systems and see what is going on. Council wise, you might bring in a consultant to look at your systems and they may point you toward the reference sites and suggest looking at another council that’s doing some really great things, then you can ring them up to compare and contrast. But for housing, you tend to have the IT people speaking between companies, saying ‘how have you overcome this?’.

When considering recent developments in technology, what is your organisation actively experimenting with, and what do you feel will impact the housing directive the most?

I think the next big thing is going to be Big Data and Analytics. There’s talk about a changing approach post-covid-19, where we will have a less physical presence in the area due to distancing and access to homes. What we used to be able to see, we will have to use data to predict. I think that’s quite a big change. I’m contemplating geotagging, where we can capture data at a point in time. We can then use our customer’s eyes and ears to validate information in real time without physically being present. I don’t quite know how that’s going to be achieved, but that’s my plan. How we can model what’s going on in a predictive way, and using tenants to compile and verify.

Looking back with 2020 hindsight, what would you have done differently?

My only digital conundrum was way back at the early turn of the century. I was call centre manager at Aldwyck, with the option of going for standard switch based phone system or going to IP based. The IP telephone was really early doors stuff and would obviously have been the way forward in hindsight. We could have really been an early adopter there, but I went safe... I don't give it a lot of thought now but that’s something that could've put us right at the leading edge.

Personally, the only thing I really regretted digitally doing was, spending a lot of time developing Network Additional Storage devices. I really love music and I wanted to listen to music everywhere, so I basically used NAS devices to create a network so I could stream the music onto my phone when I was out and about - my entire record collection! Then some bright spark invented Spotify - it was years of my life wasted!

Great, thank you so much for your time Paul, I appreciate it. Thank you.

Topics: local authorities, councils, Driving Digital, local government