In this interview we talk to Paula Forster, Senior Research and Insight Manager, about her role in the Strategic Business Intelligence team and how the council uses data and online feedback to improve the delivery of public services.
Claire: Why don’t we start talking a little bit about what you do at the council, and how your team works.
Paula: I’ve been at the council for 15 years and work as part of a centralised Business Intelligence Service. This unit is split into three teams. An Operational BI team that focuses on supporting business as usual and optimising the council’s services for our 650,000 residents. A BI Development team which gathers data and identifies opportunities for using new technology. And my team, the Strategic BI team, which uses business intelligence to inform strategic decision-making and service improvement. We are commissioned by different managers and officers from departments across the council.
Our primary focus is on corporate projects and strategic issues, for example how to achieve better funding for the council or respond to requirements around important public health issues. We provide support for issues that require formal consultations and have a legal requirement, for example, a recent consultation on the future provision for children’s centres.
We also support the work of the transformation unit for specific change programmes where data is required, for instance, to inform impact assessments.
Claire: What are your priorities? What is key to achieving these?
Paula: My focus in the team is on qualitative methods of research to uncover issues and delve deeper into problems so we can solve them. My work falls into 2 areas. The first is around the digital development of the council’s online resources such as the website. I work closely with the Digital Services team and use Google Analytics to track and analyse what’s working for users on our website and what’s not. I do user testing to uncover insights and understand where we can make improvements.
My second focus area is to enable continuous improvement of the council’s commercial decision-making. This can be about enabling greater control over our costs, exploring new models of service delivery, or new product or service development.
Key to all this work is gathering the right data and feedback from the right people, and then analysing, visualising and reporting what this data reveals so we can learn from it and make improvements.
Claire: You mention the importance of feedback. How does your team currently gather feedback?
Paula: We use a range of tools and choose the right tool to use based on the context and type of feedback we need.
There is not one piece of software or approach that meets all our needs. For some consultations we use a combination of tools.
We use online surveys as well as paper surveys. We host discussion groups and one to one interviews. Sometimes we run pop-up events around particular themes with groups of customers and stakeholders. Confers allows us to gather online qualitative feedback as part of this mix.
With Confers we were able to enable collaborative discussion and gather the deeper, qualitative feedback we needed.
Claire: How did your team start using Confers? What was the context and problem you were trying to solve?
Paula: In May 2018 the data from Google Analytics, user testing and feedback uncovered an issue with the council’s mental health website pages. These are important because they help people access the adult health and social care services they need.
The pages required an update and the Adults and Communities department wanted some user feedback to make sure the revised version was easy to read, the information and advice made sense to people and would be helpful to participants or someone they know, and to find out if there were any key gaps in content. So they commissioned me to find a way to engage with different user groups. I didn’t think a standard online survey would be the best tool for this particular problem. With Confers we were able to enable collaborative discussion and gather the deeper, qualitative feedback we needed.
Claire: How have you used Confers? What has been the most useful?
Paula: What made the Confers forum different to a traditional online survey is that people were able to view and comment on slides which showed the web content, see what other people had said within the online forum and agree, disagree or ignore as they so chose.
We were able to visualise the content and ask questions so people could see and respond to them in context. We were able to make the questions very open. We were able to add hotlinks to the content so we could test out people’s response to weblinks using a Confers feature called Info notes.
Participants could take part in the online forum anonymously as a public visitor. Or they could register to take part, which identified their email address and the name they chose to register with. If registered participants wanted to leave feedback for the organisers only, i.e. not visible publicly, then this option was also available.
We identified and invited via a link both internal and external participants and groups to take part. Some were sent invitations straight from Confers, and others were invited to participate during group meetings. The link to take part could also be shared by anyone participating in the project via email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Overall we achieved some useful feedback from people which we are using to update the website pages. Verbally we received feedback from participants that Confers was easy to access.
Claire: As a BI specialist, what would your advice be for others trying to improve the way they gather feedback from their stakeholders? Where do they start? What are the things that really matter?
Paula: My advice would be to make sure you really understand the problem you are trying to solve. Then identify who is best to help you solve it and what tools you have that will meet your needs to do this.