4 May 2020

Blog by Paul Fleming

Paul Fleming,
Director of Digital and Business Change, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council

I worked in the local NHS during the 2009 pandemic and was in an NHS regional role during the cyber attack in 2017 – two major business continuity scenarios. This crisis is very different because of its prolonged duration and its scale.

I am supporting the chief executive in some areas of business continuity and we hold video conferences and communicate remotely using MS Teams. We had been implementing  Microsoft Office 365 since the winter but when COVID-19 hit we decided to accelerate and very quickly migrated all of the senior team across to complete the rollout.


Get the communications right

I have learned from previous crises that a vital first step is to make sure the communications systems are robust. We were going to push out MS Teams throughout Spring and Summer, but we have pushed it out there at speed, wrapped up with some training and support. Our management board and extended leaderships sessions are both using Teams and it’s growing rapidly throughout the organisation. This was a major culture shift as these sessions had always been face to face until COVID.

Last year we upgraded our IT systems and deployed mobile devices for the workforce, which has enabled our move to remote working – and 70 per cent of staff are working remotely, that’s around 1,500 people – which means there are 1,500 fewer people coming into close contact and spreading the virus.

We saw that Government meetings were being held face to face and ministers and senior staff were getting ill so we moved our key meetings to video. In some ways video conferences are better than face to face. Our extended leadership is 50 senior officers and we found that whereas previously you would hear from the same few voices, with MS Teams’ system of allowing comments through chat it gives a voice to more people and we are hearing different perspectives and getting real time feedback.

Our IT network wasn’t designed to cope with the majority of the workforce working remotely at the same time, it was made to give us flexibility of ways of working, so we have had to make major changes to the infrastructure which would usually take months of planning – we’ve needed to keep the show on the road.


Help Hub set up

The Council already had strong relationships and partnerships with the charitable sector and our communities and with the pandemic every council was told to set up a Help Hub, so we quickly scaled up our existing arrangements, to co-ordinate deliveries of food and other support to those who need them.

An example of how important this is was a 90 year old woman who was not known to the services and with no friends, but who had someone who used to drop off food supplies. This helper started self-isolating so the woman had no food; she called BBC Radio Lancashire for help because she didn’t know what to do. Resident stories like this are helping us to shape our offer. We realised how important Council support was going to be to reduce the risk of a medical crisis expanding into a humanitarian crisis.

There has been a massive increase in our use of social media both as a tool for direct communication and for two-way dialogue, for instance dealing with questions about business grants and the Help Hub. There has been a lot of constructive feedback – and a lot of gratitude.

On 26th March we launched our new Help Hub with a digital form on the Council website, a day later our contact centre went live taking calls from residents and organisations. We were one of the first Hubs to go live with online forms in England.

Weeks earlier, we had brought in a new customer digital portal which was intended to allow residents to report things like graffiti and missed bin collections and book services; this quickly became the tool for our online Help Hub.

We set up a call centre and redeployed staff from leisure centres, training them on the systems and our customer service standards. We can see live dashboards showing the types of calls coming in – whether from businesses, people shielding those at risk or those in need of other help. Businesses were also given a digital form to complete, to apply for grants.

Last summer we had undergone Government Digital Service training in agile ways of working, including rapid development of solutions, multi disciplinary development and user research – and we are using this learning in dealing with the pandemic. It was important for us to get minimum viable products up and running and iterate and improve them as we went, due to the needs of residents.


Making the most of digital

We have redesigned our website to signpost around COVID; it is a gateway for information on what services are still running and how to get help. There has been a massive increase in our use of social media both as a tool for direct communication and for two-way dialogue, for instance dealing with questions about business grants and the Help Hub. There has been a lot of constructive feedback – and a lot of gratitude.

There are lots of different data sets coming in, from our call centre, from the Government and from our own systems which we are de-duplicating so that we can identify priorities. We use bulk text messaging to different groups of people to target help where it is needed.

One of our early moves was to use the digital signs on bus stops and big digital billboards in town centres to show messages about handwashing and other advice from Government. Prior to COVID we promoted the MyGP app on the screens for people to access health services as well as opening a digital health hub in our library for people. This translated into us having large numbers of people able to access their GP online.

We have been on a journey involving dashboards and business intelligence; there were lots of different sets of data with different services but we have created a Covid dashboard which pulls together information such as number of cases; deaths reported by registrars; national, regional and local numbers of cases; staff data, help hub data and more.

It has meant our daily sit-rep calls are less repetitive, shorter and less frequent and after rapid prototyping – we are on our third iteration - it is working very well.


Providing practical help

What began as a relief hub with our community teams and partners has ended up with a 33,000-foot food distribution warehouse, working with EuroGarages. We’ve put in wifi hotspots so we can get the triaged requests across and deliver food quickly to where it is needed. An end to end digital process goes live this week using the portal so we can text alert someone to say a box is on its way and text later to check it has been received.

The Council has really had to step into different areas – particularly in organising relief, with more than 2,500 food parcels being distributed each week. Behind that service is a triage team working with the third sector. We had already established a link with partners like Age UK and Care Network so within two or three days we stepped it up to create the Help Hub, with a single point of access to a range of help beyond medical services.

Another practical change that has made a big difference to people is live streaming of funerals, which we did at an early stage through our environment team, given the restrictions on attendance and social distancing. Sometimes small changes can have a big impact.


Social prescribing model

We have talked about social prescribing for many years and the Help Hub model certainly provides a single point of access and referral, providing not just food and supplies but befriending and mental health support, delivered by community teams working with partners in NHS, voluntary and charity sectors. It has been amazing the pace we have been able to mobilise support when driven by necessity to change.

Now we are talking to the Lancashire and South Cumbria Integrated Care System about how we can create better links between GPs’ clinical systems and the Help Hub and, when we scale down the relief, how we step up social prescribing. We shouldn’t stop here.

It is incredibly challenging; we are working under pressures that we have never seen before and which are prolonged. The lessons I would pass on are the importance of keeping a clear head and keeping stability in the team around you. It’s required laser-like focus and command and control ways of working. We are working fast and innovating fast and we have learned fast. The biggest difference is pace; what we were planning to do over six months we have done in three weeks; it has been innovation and implementation at breakneck speed.

And we are working in deep ways with police and fire services in our continuity cells and resilience forum.

A lot of people are working from home and dealing with care for children and loved ones and lives are in some degree of chaos, yet we are making a superhuman effort. I thank my team for it and make sure they understand the huge impact their work is having on the people of the borough.

I see the gargantuan pressures on the NHS and their fantastic response and it is right they are recognised and praised for it but it’s also important to recognise the roles of others, including councils who are providing a massive relief and care effort, despite having half the number of staff they had a decade ago. Our goal has been clear, keep residents safe and minimise the pressure on our hospital.

We had a message from an ex-soldier who had been isolated for eight weeks and received a parcel through the Help Hub; ‘I salute you all’ he said, which meant a lot to everyone.

Story told on 17 April 2020

Read more stories about digital transformation during COVID-19 >

News and blogs >

End of an era as founding Innovation Agency leaders step down Read more

Innovation Agency staff and partners bade a fond farewell to founding Chair Gideon Ben-Tovim OBE and Vice Chair Bruce Ash, at a special event in Liverpool.

Digital boost for occupational health Read more

A ground-breaking project is under way in Liverpool to improve the occupational health (OH) of self-employed people and small business employees.

Know Your Numbers! Read more

This is Know Your Numbers week, in which the charity Blood Pressure UK aims to raise awareness of high blood pressure and prevent heart attacks and stroke. We spoke to a volunteer who has good cause to commit herself to..

Psychology workforce initiative shortlisted for national awards Read more

A collaboration led by the Innovation Agency to create a new role in mental health has been shortlisted for two prestigious national awards.

All the latest from the Innovation Agency...