Transformation and ICT Director Lisa Commane plans to send Coventry to the forefront
By Mark Chillingworth
Lisa Commane is preparing for May 4th 2017. Coventry and its neighbours in the midlands will on that spring date elect a new mayor. The elections for new metropolitan area mayors will see Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Cambridgeshire and a conglomeration of midlands cities chose a mayor under a deal set out by former chancellor George Osborne to give more power and authority to regions, including increased ability to collect and spend local taxation. In the midlands this means Coventry is joining forces with nearby Solihull, Birmingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton. The midlands election will be one of most closely watched as Andy Street, former John Lewis CEO is standing for the Conservative party. With both the Conservatives and Labour parties divided and in total disarray following the last year’s referendum a win in the midlands will be a much needed boost to flagging fortunes of either party.
As Director for Transformation, Customer Service and ICT at Coventry City Council the election of a new mayor is the latest in a series of local government changes. For Coventry it is an interesting chapter, the city that once dominated global car manufacturing and before that bicycles has in recent years remained buoyant and has stolen some of the thunder of its nearby and far larger neighbour Birmingham. Severn Trent Water, a significant employer chose to relocate to Coventry from Birmingham, Jaguar Land Rover remains a crucial business, despite its’ increasing national and geographic spread. For Commane, whatever happens in the political chambers, the focus has to be the citizens.
“With councils people pay their tax and they don’t always think about the scale of what we do,” she says in the grand council chamber buildings in the city centre. Commane keeps things simple in a complex world by focusing on making Coventry “a better place to live and work” and the rest follows. Though the new mayors may challenge local identities by lumping Coventry and midlands cities together, Commane has a different view: “It is less about an entity and more about how we work with our partners in health, police, business and the community to make a better city,” she says. It is a view to be highly applauded, in too many civic organisations there is a feeling that old county boundaries must be adhered to.
“A lot of our work is at a combined authority level,” she says of existing close relationships with Birmingham. “There will be an investment programme. There are real strengths for all of the areas and we have many common themes in manufacturing and automotive.” She says this will enable the local community to really tackle the skills agenda and focus on its unique selling points.
Over recent years Coventry has benefited from significant investment in its infrastructure with European money modernising its ring road network – the city largely voted to leave the European Union.
Whatever the future leadership of the city that gave us Lady Godiva, Commane says her focus on changing the way the city operates. As you depart Coventry rail station the former post war tower blocks are being torn down and replaced with chic new architecture that looks like the Salford area of Manchester (also voting for a Mayor on May 4) and the city chamber, historic on the outside, now features a shared area with high performance technology as the council works towards becoming a platform for the city rather than a counting house. The change in focus of buildings is central to the work Commane is leading as the council sheds a large number of properties in its portfolio and adopts methods that allow more staff to spend more time in the community.
“Coventry is only four miles across, yet it hasn’t always been that joined up,” she admits. A new customer centre is being developed that she says has been developed using a real focus “on why people want to come and see us.
“There has been a shift in the mindset of what we need to do and we have lead the teams towards that change. Previously the experience residents had of local government was like an old bank,” she says of tellers behind glass windows at counters. “We now have a relaxed and professional feel, but that has meant recruiting new team members; team members that are customer focused in their behaviour,” she says. The same has been true for her technologists who have also had to become customer focused and less technology led in their skill set.
That change in focus is also as a result of the austerity that the public sector has had to manage since 2010. Budgets for local government have been slashed and most commentators agree that demand has risen as the population ages. Commane and Coventry say that many of their residents want to self service their demands from the local authority and therefore staff have to be customer focused in dealing with the complex issues that require face to face management. With complex community demands come a need to have a more joined up approach between the pillars of the state.
“We need to really start to deliver end to end service change, there’s an urgency to improve customer experience and reduce cost. That may mean us working more closely with other partners to get greater pace to digital redesign,” she says.
“The entire IT team is continually focussed on professional development and it is important that we allow them the space to learn and develop,” Commane says of her technologists. Commane manages a team of technologists as a non-techie, having spent the majority of her career in project management for areas of the organisation such as major projects and finance.
“It has been good for them that I have a different perspective so that IT remains relevant and listens to people,” she says. “We talk a lot in IT about being customer focused and influencing the top table, but I was already there,” she says of being given IT to her portfolio. “The technology basics are the bit that people notice, but there has been a lot of work on delivering the basics and that has been challenging as we were rolling out new technology at a swift pace.” Commane describes the organisation as being on a “roll out and learn”.
“We know we need to make a lot of changes and we’d like to do a hackathon every few months,”
As Coventry City Council adopts new methods and technologies, Commane has been bringing the internal community together to jointly discover and understand the change. “Organisations are all about people and we all like to work in certain ways. Technology change is not all whizzy new stuff, its about getting the basics right and being able to tell the best stories and how it can really help you. Freeing people from the constraints difficult systems to use and encouraging agile working will help us with some of the challenges the city faces,” she says.
Commane lists Microsoft as a key supplier as well as specialist technology providers. With Coventry being home to a number of fast growth challenger technology providers Commane is constantly looking to work with new suppliers she says. “We need more disruption from the monolithic platforms.
Commane has been working with the Serious Games Institute to help her bring the organisation together, she says of one challenger organisations already helping innovation at Coventry City Council. “Hackathons (pictured right) have also been run to tackle technology challenges, but also grow digital skills and our understanding of how ICT needs to change to meet user needs. We’ve focused on data and how that can be used more effectively to address the diverse challenges a modern city faces.
“It creates momentum and creates an opportunity to collaborate,” she says of the method that is gaining traction with CTOs and CIOs from a wide range of sectors. “We know we need to make a lot of changes and we’d like to do a hackathon every few months,” she says, adding that some of the major issues are going to be tackled in a hackathon environment including services changes and smart technologies. “Hackathons have helped us to get more organisational awareness and identify our champions,” Commane says of the wider cultural implications hackathons offer. At our meeting Commane was already planning the next hackathon, which is tasked with improving adult social care.
Commane took on the technology remit in 2014 as part of her role as Assistant Director for Transformation and Customer Service having been Assistant Director for Transformation for a year and before that Assistant Director of Special Projects in finance and a strategic finance manager. She’s a passionate local with a strong connection to the city she now works for, having family in and around the city and she studied biological science and virology at the nearby University of Warwickshire. A keen walker and full of energy, you get a sense that however a mayoral election changes the midlands, Commane will tackle the change with enthusiasm and a keen sense of community.