How West Sussex County Council engages their hard-to-reach workforce.

Download PDF version

Summary of accomplishments

  • Launched within exacting time scale to meet published commitment;
  • 1000 active users within the first month and almost 2000 users by the end of the first quarter;
  • Council news reaches all users at the same time;
  • Two-way communication process begins with simple Interactions (increasing 300% month-on-month)
  • 700% increase in employee ideas generated.



In December 2018, West Sussex County Council’s (WSCC) Chief Executive committed to introducing an app to tackle the challenge of staff engagement. After a thorough commercial process, the programme was fast-tracked into operation by WSCCs Transformation Portfolio Office to meet the executive team's April commitment.

In reality, the momentum behind the programme had grown throughout 2018. The senior leadership team had already identified that culture, performance and finance were their three main challenges. And they reasoned that if the council were to successfully transform services and the communities they serve - against a backdrop of significant budgetary cuts - staff engagement is critical to their success.

However, this was not just a top-down driven solution! The 2018 staff conference, several pulse surveys and a full staff survey, identified that council employees were keen to know more about the decisions made at a corporate level and across the Directorates. Indeed, workforce feedback consistently asked for three things:

  • To hear more about the organisational challenges and changes;
  • They wanted the senior leadership team to be far more visible;
  • To have the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process.

Client Profile

West Sussex is a three-tier English county and WSCC is the County authority responsible for public services such as education, transport, strategic planning, social services, public safety, the fire service and waste disposal. It is responsible for services to a community of almost 860,000 people in an area almost 2000 km2 in South East England. 

The Transformation Team was responsible for fast-tracking the app into commission to help address three known staff engagement problems:

Problem 1 - a difficult workforce to reach

  • Approximately 6,000 Council staff (excluding teachers and education staff based in schools); 
  • Spread across a wide geographic area and a large number of locations - such as children and family centres, libraries and fire stations - who may never visit a main hub;
  • Providing a broad range of services including highways, social care, waste, fire and rescue and libraries, as well as core corporate services;
  • With varying and flexible work schedules, patterns and shifts;
  • Who identify with the ‘location organisation’ rather than the county council (e.g. fire fighters identify with the fire service and crossing patrols with their local school) working in some services

Problem 2 - the digitally overlooked workforce

  • The very hard-to-reach - around 25% of our staff - who have sporadic access to shared computers (e.g. librarians) or,
  • Who may not have any corporate IT equipment to access the organisation’s network or email services or,
  • Who may have an extremely limited known digital footprint (e.g. no WSCC or known personal email address)

Problem 3 - outmoded internal communication channels

  • Weekly email newsletters only available to those with a WSCC email address;
  • Intranet news features open to those with access to our corporate network;
  • Printed leaflet system that can be issued with the monthly payslip;
  • Team meetings, where information is cascaded but runs the  risk of consistency, filtering and bias problems; 
  • Some service specific newsletters at risk of misinterpretation and inconsistencies.


The Big Exchange

WSCC wanted to address these issues by focusing their attention on the workforce that current channels couldn’t reach. They called their solution the Big Exchange.

The Big Exchange (BE) is a rebranded version of the Talkfreely app that’s distributed to the council’s workforce via the app stores using the council’s own brand and logo. It offered WSCC a number of immediate advantages over their existing communication channels:

  • Communication is real-time allowing the council to distribute alerts - including business resilience messages, such as weather warnings - immediately;
  • The channel is available 24 hours a day, 365 days-a-year, allowing staff to engage across different work patterns;
  • It is available on different digital platforms. Both corporate and personal users can access BE via a browser on their desktop or laptop, or via the app on their smartphone or tablet. It’s their choice;
  • It also helps the council to segment their staff into different audiences or groups which allows:
    • the council to target specific messages and content at different groups,
    • the council to create open and closed groups for sensitive information
    • individuals to personalise their experience and filter out ‘noise’;
  • It’s also a flexible app that’s easy to configure and control, which helps the council grow or reduce the channel’s focus in line with their evolving communication objectives, strategy and tactics.

Why Us

The Talkfreely team has been supportive, proactive and reactive. They helped us to navigate our way through the launch and on-boarding processes, their expertise in this field and their flexibility to work within the parameters of what can be a challenging sector has been invaluable. Whereas other suppliers may have provided the product and left, their team continues to collaborate with us to make the app as successful as it can be.

Julie Robinson, Project Manager

Talkfreely was chosen because:

  • their core product offered significant savings when compared to other off-the-shelf products or developing their own product (in-house or with a third party developer);
  • their software consisted of flexible modules that could be:
    • configured to accomodate for cross service involvement and the challenging change culture;
    • enabled and disabled to phase in functionality in line with both their launch plan and future plans;
    • streamlined to help users familiarise themselves with the apps functionality in an organic way;
  • the app could be rebranded to seamlessly align with their existing - and familiar - communication programmes;
  • their app was one of the few products that treated the hard-to-reach and corporate users equally with responsive mobile and desktop environments and push notifications;
  • their support team were based locally and able to support our exacting project timeline.

The results and next phase

The Big Exchange is helping the Council to create a modern employee communication plan that reaches, engages and aligns.

Ravi Dhindsa, Head of Transformation

On 1 April 2019, the app was launched with first-phase functionality – a news page with corporate information that staff can react with uisng familiar interactions such as ‘likes’ and ‘comments’.  Two weeks later, they launched the ‘Big Conversation’, a free-for-all page that allowed staff to post questions, debates or comment - but importantly also allowed a dialogue to develop as other staff were able to interact. Finally - in the first month -  a small number of polls were included to generate feedback about future functionality on the app and to gather feedback on their existing staff benefits platform. The second and third months, incrementally added a little more functionality - a staff survey and an ideas section for example - but emphasised the need to create a dialogue.

Results at the end of the first quarter were highly encouraging:

  1. A third of the employee base (33.5%) were actively using the app
  2. And 8% of those active users were recognised as their ‘hard-to-reach’ brigade 
  3. The ideas section - although in its infancy - generated a 700% increase (albeit from a very low base) in ideas over their previous system - but more encouragingly accounted for 17.5% of all employee interactions in the month of June.

Although this is an early peek at the project’s performance, it’s interesting to note - and contrary to preconceived conceptions - that there is a real council workforce appetite to get involved. For example - there were 25200 page views in the first month which means on average, each active user visited over 25 pages of content per month. Pretty good for ‘just’ a corporate news site!

Of course more work is needed to reach more staff (both corporate and non-corporate users), engage those staff in ways that encourage participation and dialogue, and align their engagement behind the council’s need to change and transform services in response to other - evolving - stakeholder expectations. The second phase promises to introduce more functionality based on new modules - but more importantly - the input and ideas of their workforce.

Challenges and lessons learnt

Introducing a new media channel for staff takes time to embed.  As expected, the council's first tranche of users were already in corporate hubs and corporate roles.

Never-the-less, West Sussex were encouraged to see that they rapidly reached 1,000 users and the steady rise to 2,000 in the first quarter, even if (in the Council's words) "this has proven a little more difficult and has needed more focused attention":

  • Roadshows across satellite hubs;
  • Email marketing to those on email;
  • Merchandise promoting the Big Exchange;
  • Challenges across Directorates to encourage competition 
  • Promotional leaflets in payslips (for staff without access to corporate IT)

This focus has helped the Council to reach tougher teams, for example, the FRS initially saw a low 3% adoption, but with focused attention this quickly increased by 30% in a month. 

About Talkfreely

Talkfreely helps local authorities to engage employees other channels cannot reach - bringing organisations and their workforces closer together.

We do this by building the perfect employee communication tool set - allowing different organisations to maximise their employees contribution and unlock the true potential of disengaged and disconnected workforces. 

Talkfreely is a leading provider of flexible internal communication platforms that help clients reach, engage and align their employees behind their company’s vision, mission, objectives, strategy and tactics.

Talkfreely is ready and waiting to revolutionise your internal communications

Learn more about the app that brings a company and its people closer together

Learn about our app