woman touches hands through glass with relative who is standing behind a window and wearing a mask

Many local authorities and governments have a complicated relationship with technology. Corporate managers championing digital transformation is all very well, but can fall flat when individual departments don’t have the budget to update their systems; likewise, IT departments need to be massively scaled up if they’re to cope with the monumental task of adapting a council to more modern ways of working.

But then something like COVID-19 happens. Suddenly, digital transformation isn’t part of the Corporate Plan 2035. It’s right now, and hundreds of organisations are left scrambling to catch up.

With IT departments overwhelmed, many councils had to find temporary ways of maintaining service delivery while adapting to a remote environment.

I spoke to Ben Jorgensen, the site administrator for Citizen Space at Rochdale Borough Council, who gave me some unique insights into the challenges involved in local authority disaster response – and how Citizen Space helped the council manage them. He talked extremely quickly and was clearly enthused about his work.

I’m dead chuffed with it. Citizen Space saved us a lot of time and effort doing something else.”

In Ben’s role as the site administrator for Citizen Space at Rochdale, he supports other site users and oversees the data and analysis for Rochdale’s engagement activity.

“I ended up getting seconded to the delivery of Rochdale’s local community COVID response,” Ben said. “I worked with the emergency call handling team. In the first lockdown we had thousands of calls from people who needed our help. Essentially the government passed responsibility for all of those residents who’re vulnerable, or shielding, or in need of support in some way, on to councils and allocated money to support that. ‘We’ll give you all this cash, you sort it,’ sort of thing.

“But with that comes the expectation of monitoring and returns – basically, they want to see how many people we’re dealing with and how that money’s getting spent. We were getting thousands of calls…so managing that data is really, really important. Not only so we could send the government information about how we were using money, but to track how we’d helped our residents and make sure they were getting what they needed.”

Whereas usually call handlers would deal with a steady, but manageable volume of incoming and outgoing calls per day, during the first lockdown the number of calls exploded. People were stuck in their homes, unable to get food deliveries. Medication supplies were interrupted, surgeries cancelled, and mental health services overwhelmed. Family support networks were cut off overnight. People were left with nowhere else to turn but their local authority.

Contact centre staff were struggling to condense this sprawling web of desperate human need into statistics and data points.

Rochdale Borough Council's Citizen Space hub

“When I got involved [the call handlers] had this absolutely mad Excel spreadsheet – and I’m good at using Excel, I’m used to working with data. Even I was looking at it going ‘this is a nightmare.’ They’d asked me to do the reporting and I said, ‘no way. I’m not reporting on this, it’s a mess. I’ve got a better idea – you need to use Citizen Space.”

Having been in his role for 3 years by this point, Ben was well aware of Citizen Space’s data collection, storage and processing capabilities. It’s been used as a data collection tool by other organisations as well. Approaching the call handling problem from a data analysis point of view, it was clear a better tool was needed for consistent data management – especially considering the pressure from central government to provide detailed statistics.

 “I had a bit of kickback at first,” Ben said. “They must’ve thought, who’s this kid coming in telling them what to do? People were saying stuff like ‘well ICT were saying they’d do us a Google form’ and that – but it was gonna be two to four weeks! I was dead straight with them. I said, ‘listen, give me an hour and I’ll have a form you can use.’ It’s so simple to set up a survey in Citizen Space that it meant I had a working process for them that same day. Obviously they had to sign off the questions and stuff, but otherwise they’d have had to wait three weeks to get a system going. That’s way too long, it was all changing by the day. We needed to get people help urgently, and part of doing that was keeping track of who we were helping and how.

“Basically, I put it on the line and told them that if using Citizen Space didn’t work after a week, they could get rid of it and I’d leave them alone.”

He needn’t have worried, however.

“It was really successful. The way we ended up using Citizen Space was as a data capture tool that the call handlers could use for both incoming and outgoing calls. It meant we could collect a load of qualitative and quantitative data that meant we could understand, first of all, is this person safe? Are they in need? But also, how many people have called today, what were they ringing about, what are the demographics? And we could do some really strong reporting with the data that we captured.”

It’s been major. We couldn’t have done this without it. And people from other departments who might not’ve come across Citizen Space otherwise – everyone’s been raving about it.”

“The problem the call handlers had was that they couldn’t consistently collect information, and that’s what Citizen Space does, it uniforms the data as it comes through. They don’t need it to be a harder process than it already is. They’re already dealing with really complex problems on the phone, they’re organising groceries for people who can’t leave the house or people who’ve got a serious mental health need, stuff like that – so if they’ve got to scrap around in a spreadsheet trying to find information…it’s not ideal. So it’s been major – honestly, we couldn’t have done this without it. And people in other departments who might not’ve come across Citizen Space otherwise – their responses have been great. Everyone’s raving about it. It’s been really, really useful.”

Ben spoke with the emergency call handling team and asked them what questions staff needed to ask callers and which data they needed to collect. He then created a few private activities in Citizen Space containing said questions, which call handlers would then access as though they were respondents, answer the questions on behalf of the caller, and submit the response.

“Looking at it from a data perspective was useful in how we crafted the questions for the surveys – so rather than having loads of free text boxes when there’s someone in need of support, we gave them a few yes/no options first of all and we can ask if they have any additional needs after that. We need to be sorting out food deliveries and making sure we’re responding quickly so we need to be able to analyse it quickly. We can’t do that with loads of qualitative data, or at least it’s much harder.”

Ben created a survey for incoming calls, one for outgoing or check-up calls, and another for outcomes.

a rochdale multi-way sign

“I wanted to make sure we were focussing and reporting on the outcomes, that’s really important – there’s a triage process, like you might ring up about food, but then I might realise you’ve got a serious mental health need and I need to refer you to MIND or a support group. It’s not just about what you came in and rang us about, it’s about what we did.  And that’s why the outcome survey is very important as well. Then the care team will go and fill that in and say what they actually did. And again, it’s about making the survey easy and quick enough to use that it doesn’t impact their role, but that we can get enough information out to report on.”

Another thing that came in handy was the fact that Citizen Space sends a PDF copy of someone’s answers to an email address. This meant that the team could cross-reference repeat callers’ information, as well as email a copy of the responses to, for example, the adult care team, if someone on the phone was in need of additional services.

Having all this data to hand meant that analysts were able to garner some insights that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“We included some demographics questions in the surveys, like for example which postcode people were calling from…we noticed that actually, whereas usually people who call the council are already in vulnerable situations, during the lockdown we were talking to people who’ve never had to phone the council before, like people in affluent areas who all of a sudden can’t leave their house to go shopping and they can’t ask their families for help. Because we’ve collected the data in such a concise way, it allowed us to really understand that right now there’s a new clientele, people who’ve never come across the council other than the bins being collected and paying council tax.  They needed our support and help. “


In an emergency situation, Citizen Space was exactly what we needed – it’s extremely quick to set up, we know it’s GDPR compliant, we know the data’s secure.

The pandemic has starkly illustrated to the public the importance of data. Many of us check it every day. How many cases per day? How many deaths? How many vaccinations? Early controversies over data storage, like when a government Excel spreadsheet deleted vital testing data, served to further hammer home the importance of storing and processing it securely.

While not a permanent solution, using Citizen Space in this way meant that Rochdale was able to be responsive and reactive at a time when everything was uncertain, and to get urgent aid to those citizens most in need much faster.

“We know it’s not a long-term fix,” said Ben. “But in an emergency situation Citizen Space was exactly what we needed – it’s extremely quick to set up, we know it’s GDPR compliant, we know the data’s secure. The front-end functionality was major as well because it’s so easy to use. The guy from the contact centre was well on board as soon as he saw it – it’s so simple to just fill the boxes in and work through while you’re on the phone to someone. Plus, it’s already been bought and paid for, so nobody had to pay any extra. Honestly…I’m dead chuffed with it. It’s saved us a lot of time and effort doing something else.”

Citizen Space is a citizen engagement platform trusted by government around the world. Government organisations and public bodies use Citizen Space to connect with more citizens, increase engagement and improve processes.

To learn more about what Citizen Space can do for your organisation, book a free demo and we’ll walk you through it.