FEATURE3 May 2017

Insight in Britain’s second city

Features Impact Public Sector UK

In the midst of slashed budgets, as a result of government austerity measures, Steve Rose, head of insight at Birmingham City Council has to justify his role and ensure the insight helps services in a climate of continual change. By Rob Gray

Birmingham shopping centre_crop

As the largest local authority in the UK, it should come as no surprise that Birmingham City Council is wrestling with some very big problems. The age of austerity has exacted a heavy toll on budget and headcount at a council responsible for a city with more miles of canals than Venice and that is home to 1.1m people. Its population has swelled by around 100,000 since 2004.

While the city has grown, however, funding has shrunk. Since 2010, Birmingham has been forced to slash £590m from its budget as a direct result of unprecedented cuts in the amount of grant awarded by central government. This equates to a 34% reduction in grant. One consequence has been widespread job losses, with the number of staff almost halved since 2008, from 24,000 to 12,500.

Unfortunately, there is more retrenchment to come; the council anticipates having to cut spending by a further £180m by 2021. 

Of course, such extreme belt-tightening measures have an impact on service provision. In a December 2016 interview with The Guardian, the council’s chief executive, Mark Rogers, warned of the “catastrophic consequences” of austerity on the provision of social-care services. He added that the council had reached “a deadly serious situation for too many vulnerable people who face the prospect of not having their needs met”.

It is within this testing context that the head of insight, Steve Rose, and his team operate. Rose reports to strategic director for change and corporate services Angela Probert, and – as well as running ongoing research programmes – a key part of his remit is to provide the leadership team with reliable data and insight, to inform vital decisions. 

“Some of the work we do is at a strategic level,” says Rose. “It will help redesign what happens overall. We have a deliberate demand-management-based approach – that is to say, what are the key outcomes the council needs to achieve? We bring different parts of the council together to think through how we achieve those and what people do, as the key components of that and how they link together. 

“We go through a series of workshops, bringing data and evidence into that, so at the end we can come up with a series of proposals that can best meet the citizens’ needs, not just the accountants’.” 

Rose heads an insight team of “seven and a half”. In addition to himself, there is: a project manager; a database administrator, who is very accomplished with data; a qualitative research specialist, able to turn a hand to other research methods; a senior analyst; and two other analysts. The ‘half’ bolstering the core team is someone who helps run the consultation engagement function, but who spends some of their time working in a different capacity for the council. 

Pulling levers

After seven years in the role, throughout which the council’s finances have been under intense pressure, Rose is fully aware of the need to justify the contribution of the insight team. He concedes that, at some point every year, his department – like any other – is at risk of cuts. At the same time, he argues, the turmoil and continual change mean the role of rigorous insight is more vital than ever. 

“From an insight and a research point of view, that level of change is an opportunity. You can’t just fiddle around the edges. It’s about changing what you do – really thinking it through. You can’t ‘salami slice’. 

“We are proponents of looking at what outcomes need to be achieved. What are the key levers to do it? You can’t just pull all the levers any more and see the crane arm go up; you have got to know which is the right one to pull, because you can’t afford to pull them all. That is about evidence and data – about creating evidence to understand what works if it doesn’t exist. So while we are very sensitive to the fact that there is turmoil, it is actually a very interesting period.”

Rose is proud to portray the insight function as a team that “goes deliberately poking our nose into everybody’s business”. This busybody mentality serves an important purpose; the standpoint is that insight never pretends to be an expert in other departments’ business, but it does have expertise in helping them to look at their business in the mirror. This approach has been applied across council services – from social work to health and leisure; road and travel to waste and recycling.  

Noteworthy projects over the years include: route optimisation of the fleet and waste domestic-refuse collection; leading the evaluation of a multi-agency, common assessment approach to troubled families; trialling the use of a loyalty reward scheme to achieve customer behaviour change; research into fostering; adoption and corporate parenting; and trialling the use of social media to offer self-help peer support for drug and alcohol misusers. 

Recently, the team has been heavily involved in consultation and engagement work on the future of community libraries. Focus groups have been held to gain a deeper understanding of what people use libraries for, and why. One surprising finding, reveals Rose, was a wider use of local libraries by students than expected. 

“What we did was push back and say, ‘there is need for change’,” adds Rose. “And what might that change look like? Or how can we help facilitate that? Can a library do more? Can it be something slightly different in a community – offer different things?”

Earlier in his career, Rose spent some time working in geographic information systems (GIS) and spatial analytics, and has put some of this knowledge to use on a route-optimisation project for waste trucks picking up household rubbish. This involved working with specialist consultancy Field Dynamics, piecing together all the GPS-tracked route segments in the city like a big jigsaw, and using the data to see if new routes could be created that were shorter than those generated using traditional methods. 

As it happens, Field Dynamics (formerly Dotted Eyes Solutions) is based in Birmingham; however, Rose is at pains to make clear that all procurement is conducted in line with rigorous public sector standards, and all supplier opportunities are advertised on the ‘Find it in Birmingham’ online portal. 

Birmingham is also involved in Seta – a project funded by the European Union (EU) as part of its Horizon 2020 programme – that aims to find smarter and more sustainable solutions for moving people around cities. Huge amounts of data are being gathered, both using sensors located across Birmingham and in two comparable metropolitan areas: Turin and Santander. The project is due to run until February 2019 and entails data analysis with the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University. 

Among Rose’s regular responsibilities are: a residents’ survey/people’s panel; the digital consultation and engagement platform Be Heard; and data visualisation related to open government, based on Tableau smart dashboards. Gratifyingly, the dashboard produced to ‘live map’ the 2016 election-night results in Birmingham was seen by 30,000 people and honoured globally as Tableau ‘Viz of the Day’. 

Safeguarding services

There has also been a great deal of work in health and fitness, including a second major EU project, Urbact Vital Cities – a programme intended to make cities places where people are active. Other initiatives – such as Big Birmingham Bikes (see panel, page 44 ) – dovetail nicely with this, as does the Active Data project with Sport England, which uses data to support free-to-access physical and community activities. “We need to know who is using the parks and cycling around the city,” says Rose, “so that we can show that those things need to be kept up, looked after and provided.” 

One way in which this data is captured is by asking citizens to give their details when signing up for park fitness sessions. They are then issued with a fob and their attendance is recorded automatically on an iPad when they turn up for a workout. “The logic behind that is, if you give us your data, we can help prove this is a valuable thing to do – and, therefore, we can provide it.” 

A Better Points system has been introduced to encourage people to log their activity in the city – such as cycling or walking the dog – in return for incentives. Hard evidence is being gathered and used to safeguard the facilities and services that matter. 

The insight team is expected not only to bring objective facts to bear on decision-making across the broad sweep of council services, but also to demonstrate its own cost benefit to the organisation. This can be challenging, but Rose acknowledges the importance of justifying his team’s contribution, given the enormous financial pressures on the council. 

Going forward, Birmingham is recruiting a chief information officer and putting in place a new Future Operating Model. Details are not yet clear, but it will probably involve bringing together certain support services. How this will play out is anyone’s guess – but in these difficult times of change, the need for robust insight is greater than ever.