How Essex is preparing to become one of the smartest councils in the country

Essex County Council is finally reaching the end of one of its longest journeys; six years ago, the council began its mission to the cloud, and it is now only 12 to 18 months away from getting there.

David Wilde put the strategy for that plan together as CIO of the council, and six years on, he is still at the organisation but with an even wider remit, which encompasses the strategy and ownership of housing, heritage, culture and arts, adult community learning and skills, and place services amongst others. He is responsible for 1,100 staff and a 150m budget, as well as generating 40m per annum income back to the council.

The wider remit has got Wilde thinking about how digital can influence each of the different areas that he now looks after, and as the cloud transformation project nears its end with Microsoft Office 365 to be installed later this year a new project dubbed Smart Essex has been set in motion.

There are five stands to the strategy; the first is Smart Movement which is focused on helping to move people, freight and data around the county. Wilde gives the example of putting IoT hardware on all of the council's street furniture and deploying different apps onto it. This would include apps for environmental monitoring, dynamic traffic monitoring and congestion management.

The council has also been working on a proof of concept for total transport', Wilde explains.

"People look at Uber and say it won't work in the countryside, but you have a lot of people going from A to B whether that's neighbours going back and forth or public health transport or commercial transport, and we're looking into building a solution that can enable you to tap into a full range of transport options," Wilde explains.

"We want to unlock all of the choices people have to help them move around in the rural environment more easily without it costing the taxpayers more money," he adds.

Another element of the strategy is Smart Places; the council has a demand of 130,000 new houses over the next 15 years, and Wilde says it wants to future-proof these homes by "making sure that digital is designed into those developments".

On a basic level this means implementing fast broadband connections so that people can work remotely from home and elderly people can have a better quality of life by being able to access digital technologies. But beyond that it could be about introducing local autonomous transport services, and ensuring that retailers of the future can use digital technologies to ensure they aren't faced with the same challenges as many of the shops on the high-street are today.

Other parts of the strategy include sustainability and streamlining services, while Smart Lives focuses on how digital could be used to reshape services around adult social care and domiciliary care.

"It's about taking things like the Amazon and John Lewis experience and applying that to social care organisations it could mean delivering a better quality of experience, some of which could be state funded, and some that people would be happy to pay for if they know it improves their quality of life," says Wilde.

Smart Learning, meanwhile, focuses on encouraging citizens to continue to learn throughout their lives.

"Learning is something you have to do throughout your life and the UK doesn't do this as well as Asia Pacific or the US. Over here, there is a tendency for people to go through the education system and then into work and not do their own self-learning or professional development, so this is about using digital to unlock things like adult community learning," he says.

The Smart Essex strategy is still very much in the early stages but Wilde emphasises that these aren't just futuristic descriptions of impossible ideas, but rather tangible plans that are being explored.

A plea to GDS

There have been dozens of departures at the Government Digital Service over the last few years, with the latest senior executive being chief technology officer Andy Beale who stood down earlier this month.

But Wilde believes that there has always been turnover of staff at GDS and its predecessors such as DirectGov, and hopes that the positive work that GDS has accomplished over the years continues.

But he says that the jury is out on how much the changes will have an effect on bringing Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) into reality.

"Local government is absolutely going down [the GaaP] line now, and my ongoing plea to central government is that we're doing stuff too, and we have being doing it for as long [as central government], and the austerity challenges we've been through over the last few years has probably forced us to move faster," he says.

"We are happy to share and open to share and we're keen to do so so let's do this and get GaaP, ubiquitous services and integration with digital and social, let's do it together - that would be quite nice," he says.

For years, GDS has been looked at as the organisation that is aiming to do things in new ways which are future-proof. However, it isn't alone anymore, as local government organisations like Essex are starting to think in the same way. Hopefully GDS and local government can finally work together particularly as many of their ultimate aims are the same.