15 May 2023

SME Member of the Week: Society Works

SocietyWorks is this week's SME Member of the Week. This month, techUK focusing on Local Public Services Innovation. We are showcasing showcase SME members who have worked with local authorities to find solutions that improve outcomes for citizens and help create thriving, productive and safer places for all.

SocietyWorks has been a trusted provider of digital products and consultancy for local government and the public sector for just over 10 years. 

How did your company start?

SocietyWorks is the wholly owned trading subsidiary of mySociety, the pioneering civic technology charity behind some well used and well loved democracy sites in the UK and abroad that have enabled millions of citizens to meaningfully engage with their government and within their communities, including: FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem. SocietyWorks has been a trusted provider of digital products and consultancy for local government and the public sector for just over 10 years. Meanwhile, 2023 marks mySociety’s 20th anniversary.

SocietyWorks was formed to extend mySociety’s impact by helping local authorities and other public sector organisations better serve citizens through effective and intuitive digital solutions. Our story starts with FixMyStreet Pro, our map-based fault reporting system for street, highway and environmental issues, which is a fully integrated, hosted and managed version of mySociety’s FixMyStreet. The conception of FixMyStreet Pro filled a gap in the market for an affordable, flexible and scalable digital reporting system that was easy to use for citizens, while also helping councils to improve their digital offering and close the reporting feedback loop between council, citizen and external contractors via integration with numerous systems, many of which do not talk to each other. 

The London Borough of Bromley was one of the first councils to work in partnership with SocietyWorks, influencing the design of and implementing FixMyStreet Pro as its fault reporting system back in 2012. Bromley has been an active partner ever since, sharing in our quest for what the council calls “outstanding public services through greater transparency”. Like many councils at the time, Bromley had been managing its street reports through a suite of online forms, developed in-house, but the council recognised that this system was not sustainable. As the internet evolved, customers were coming to expect more from their online reporting experience. A Bromley team member at the time said: “The world is changing, and we’re responding to that. Increasingly, our website’s becoming far more transactional”. Another said: “Efficiency, effectiveness and listening to what residents want - they’re at the heart of our values as a council. The product needs to reflect this”.  Now, with 94% of Bromley’s inbound street and highways reports being made through FixMyStreet Pro, set alongside a council team focused on delivering excellence of service to its residents, we can happily say that this partnership has been an immense success, for citizen engagement and ultimately creating safer streets and neighbourhoods.

Since 2012, we have been supporting more and more local authorities of all shapes and sizes across the UK and even abroad to provide simple but intuitive digital services that help to improve satisfaction, build trust through increased transparency and facilitate successful citizen engagement. We’re proud to have helped our clients create dramatic cost savings, effectively streamline processes to free up staff time for more pressing issues and remove barriers to two-way communication between the public sector and the public. 

Alongside FixMyStreet Pro, we now also offer WasteWorks, ApplyWorks and FOIWorks to the public sector - all designed in collaboration with councils, all designed to close the feedback loop and all capable of integrating with numerous backend systems while securing a consistent frontend experience for citizens and staff.

SocietyWorks continues to work in partnership with local authorities and other public sector organisations, putting staff and citizen needs at the heart of our product development. However, what I believe really sets us apart is our team. A number of our current developers were around in those very early years, and I feel so proud of the team for delivering what was then a pioneering vision, but is now widely recognised as a priority for local authorities who face budget cut upon budget cut and calls to do even more with less. 

More widely, we have a team that is driven by our group's charitable purpose of delivering societal impact. Operating within a not-for-profit group, specifically one that is fully remote and therefore without the overheads of other businesses, means we are able to support councils in a very cost effective and transparent manner, and we do not charge for small deviations. 

Importantly, we have an embedded culture of responsiveness and approachability, with clients able to speak directly with the developers working on their assignment, responding in real time to emerging needs. We genuinely want to take pain away from our clients, in recognition of the hefty role of the local authority and the immense mandate they serve. 

Crucially, we understand the human impact of digital disruption and will support the client through the change management cycle. We have a team that can research, design, develop and deliver effective and elegant digital solutions and have these up and running within a short timescale. Everything we do is seen through the lens of delivering societal impact: our solutions are accessible, inclusive, ethical, intuitive, and elegant. 

In short, we want to - and have proved that we can - help.

How does your company contribute to this month's theme?

At SocietyWorks, we believe that to support achievable, sustainable, on-the-ground change in local authorities innovation must be rooted in reality. To be innovative in this sector does not always mean developing big, shiny and new ideas. Instead, local authority innovation is about coming together as a team to build a shared understanding of the root problems with which councils are faced, before helping them to make small changes that will collectively make a big difference. This could be by improving processes, introducing new systems that help different service areas work more cohesively or simply helping them make better use of the systems they already have.
As a not for profit group with a multidisciplinary team, we are able to tailor the delivery of our solutions to each of our client’s needs, including offering service discovery and business readiness programmes to ensure that the solution we will be implementing is the right one for the issues at hand. Our approach is never to innovate just for the sake of it; we work with clients purposefully, and integrate our frontend solutions into existing workflows, rather than forcing full process transformation in order to begin impactful delivery. 

While I am sure many readers will believe that the most effective processes are those by design, it is important to remember that local authority processes have been built up over many years, across multiple departments, involving numerous suppliers, and are usually run on tight budgets. More often than not, local authorities need manageable transitions, not disruptive and explosive change.

For example, the true innovation behind a product like FixMyStreet Pro lies in its subtlety. On the face of things, it is a simple, map-based reporting form, while behind the scenes it handles complex routing and triaging between different teams, councils, external contractors and other public bodies, in correspondence with existing workflows. Research has shown that citizens are not interested in who is responsible for an issue; they just want to see the problem fixed. Our innovative solutions enable this fluid interaction, with all the heavy lifting done by the code running behind the scenes, requiring little human intervention.  

Subtle but impactful innovation is also demonstrated in our WasteWorks solution, developed in partnership with Bromley Council and shortlisted for the Public/Private Partnership Award at the Local Government Chronicle Awards in 2022. In this case, Bromley approached SocietyWorks wanting to replicate the citizen centric experience of FixMyStreet Pro for the council’s domestic and green waste reports and requests. With multiple in-cab systems involved in delivering waste services and already-established operational processes, our solution had to be able to slot in seamlessly and improve the workflow without interrupting it. It was imperative for Bromley that this service would help to improve transparency for residents, so we made sure that WasteWorks can facilitate excellent, time-sensitive communication between council and citizen via convenient report updates and reminders, while giving council staff more control over the messaging pushed to residents throughout the report or request process.

Last year, SocietyWorks undertook research intended to inform councils and other public sector organisations of the state of citizen reporting in the UK in 2022, and to support with a better understanding of citizens’ current expectations. Key findings included that citizens cared about improving their neighbourhoods: 74% of respondents listed improving the place where they live as a top motivation for making reports. The primary motivator was not holding relevant authorities to account, but more about getting the problem fixed, and improving the situation for everyone. We also found that there was a need for better management of expectations and communication:the main reason 54% of citizens surveyed haven’t made any reports recently is because a problem they reported in the past was not fixed. Here we see what happens when the feedback loop is left open and the information shared with citizens is insufficient or unclear, leading to the build up of apathy through the belief that nothing has been done because the council must not care. Societal apathy, especially in the face of potentially dangerous street and environmental faults is a real world risk. SocietyWorks’ solutions help councils not just deliver key services, but encourage valued citizen engagement that helps communities to thrive.

Ultimately, we define local public service innovation as incremental and transitional changes that deliver big impact, and can be delivered effectively and painlessly, used easily and sustained affordably. 

Who's behind your company?

Generally, people are seen as the most fallible element in a system or process. However, I believe that people, working openly and in collaboration, bringing all their skills and experience to a team, are what makes the seemingly impossible possible. 

At SocietyWorks we are fortunate to have a diverse, multi-skilled, multidisciplinary team working openly and collaboratively with our non-executive board of directors, who represent excellence across their fields of expertise.  We are also very lucky that some of our current team members have been around from the very earliest days of mySociety, when the team was no more than a small number of volunteers working together in the belief that digital tools could make government and democracy better. Alongside our veteran team members, we have welcomed numerous new faces as we have grown, each of whom bring experience and skills from diverse backgrounds, fields and workplaces. 

Rather uniquely within the tech and public sectors, we have a significant number of women in leadership positions across our team and Board. I myself am proud to be part of the Group senior leadership team as Managing Director of SocietyWorks, with a background in financial leadership. Meanwhile, mySociety is led by the truly inspirational Louise Crow, as Chief Executive. Louise was one of the earliest volunteer developers at mySociety. She has an academic background in psychology, over 20 years of experience in software development in a variety of environments and was awarded a PhD in Artificial Intelligence years before AI was taken seriously by the populace.

What’s your perspective on the present and the future of this month's theme?

In terms of the wider operating environment, big and shiny innovation works to help foster creativity and brilliance -  this creative energy will be needed to solve big global issues now and in the future. However, SocietyWorks represents an organisation that focuses on innovation that is rooted in reality. We help to solve societal issues through simple transitions for local authorities, rather than huge, disruptive transformations that may or may not lead to effective change. 

Looking at the bigger picture, I believe that no societal problem is too big to be addressed, but in order to do so we all need to be more open to working in partnership. Local authorities sharing advice and ideas with other local authorities, and working with businesses that have clarity of their value proposition and can deliver citizen centric solutions with excellence in response to the emerging and changing operating landscape.  

Behind the scenes, we need diverse leaders to craft strong visions that teams can get behind and feel motivated towards delivering, keeping the citizen well and truly at the heart of all decision making. 

I am excited to be working in partnership with an organisation like TechUK, and look forward to engaging with different views, looking at problems through different lenses and dialoguing openly about points of tension. It is my hope that we will learn as much as we can and share in return about delivering societal impact through innovation, ultimately creating a society that works. 

Recent Success

We are thrilled to have made the final for the Technology award at the Local Government Chronicle Awards 2023 in recognition of our work in partnership with Buckinghamshire Council to unify the fault reporting process between the unitary authority and its 171 parish and town councils.  

The Technology award celebrates developments that bring about increased efficiency, better use of resources and effective behaviour change - all things we are proud to say we have achieved in partnership with Buckinghamshire Council by introducing innovative new functionality to their existing FixMyStreet Pro installation. In this case, the functionality enables automatic triaging of reports to town and parish councils and better ways of passing reports between authorities. It makes the reporting of issues easier for residents and creates a much smoother user experience for officers, reducing costs by cutting down administration and failure demand.  Speaking about the new functionality, Buckinghamshire Council said: “We are using technology to get the report to the right team, as well as managing customer expectations at the first point of contact. This is a game changer!”.  

We are also extremely excited to be undertaking a programme of work in collaboration with Data Orchard and Mapio Cymru to launch a Welsh language version of FixMyStreet, with a view to make local reporting more inclusive in Wales. Similarly, mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou team is currently in the process of adding the Welsh Parliament to the service, which will enable members of the public in Wales to discover more about who represents them, how they have voted and what they have said in debates. This information will be available in both English and Welsh.    

I am also proud to celebrate our ongoing commitment to accessibility and inclusion in general, with recent success seen in improvements made to our sites after an accessibility audit. It is important to us that anyone should be able to use our technology easily and to its full potential.

What does the future look like for your company?

SocietyWorks’ mission lies in helping our public sector clients better serve citizens through effective digital solutions. We will continue to work closely, collaboratively and responsively with local authorities and other public sector organisations, helping them to define the problems they are trying to solve, and supporting them with impactful digital solutions. Product development will remain rooted in research, and targeted on solving problems for the greatest societal impact. We are soon to be launching a community hub for our clients to discuss their shared pain points and possible solutions. This is an exciting evolution for SocietyWorks as we work to support more collaborative working practices and partnership across local authority boundaries and beyond.       

Asks for other members

We want to hear from local authorities about their pain points. We have a number of products and services that are ready to go, and we are happy to work with councils implementing our tried and tested solutions. We will work closely and responsively with you, and aim to make any transitions as pain-free as possible.  We would also love to hear from you if you want to have a dialogue about pain points you haven’t yet found a solution for. 

More information

Website - SocietyWorks

Citizen reporting in the UK 2022

techUK - SME Connect

With over 500 SME members, techUK understands the issues that are most relevant to the UK SME tech sector. If you are an SME, you will find plenty of information here on how techUK can help you with a range of services, programmes and advice. Visit the techUK SME Connect page or contact Ed Bevan