Councils urged to focus their efforts on collaboration and sharing
Former Surrey and Croydon ICT Lead Nick Roberts says individual organisations have neither all the information they need to successfully complete end to end citizen tasks, nor the resources to succeed alone
The former head of ICT at the London Borough of Croydon and IT Group Manager at Surrey County Council, Nick Roberts believes the public sector has some way to go if it is to work more collaboratively in the face of continuing pressures which are sending organisations down an outsourcing route.
Roberts, who is also a past president of Socitm, has just moved on from Croydon in search of a broader, transformative role, and has forthright views on the way the public sector needs to work together.
In an interview, Roberts said he is still seeing “huge” differences in procurement and sourcing practices across the public sector.
“Smart sourcing, right sourcing, and selective sourcing is still a very powerful tool for any CIO,” he said. “But political pressure to find cheaper and cheaper delivery methods continues to drive wholesale outsourcing initiatives. Some of these providers have a tremendous wealth of technical skills and capability, yet with multiple contracts these are often spread far too thinly and the best skills are often only called on as a last resort."
Roberts noted that can be a dilemma when an authority outsources innovation and change to a provider.
“Solution proposals are inevitably tainted by commercial priorities and so difficult to establish their competitiveness and appropriateness,” he said. “Taking a systems integrator (SI) route in this area where the SI isn’t necessarily the provider can help alleviate these pressures. But a strong learning point for me has been the need to retain strategic and architectural design skills internally to ensure flexibility to go anywhere for a solution.”
Another key change Roberts has seen “mature” in the last two years are substantial moves to Cloud-based XAAS and hosting of apps. This only leaves legacy and specialist apps locally so any future outsource agreements should focus the contract on these and their repurposing to Cloud. Give a service provider a portfolio of local apps to support and there may be little incentive to shift these to the Cloud and reduce the contract value.
He added, “Large outsource contracts often lead to man-marking key responsibilities with an internal team to ensure the right results are obtained: the ‘safety net’ effect. This may include EA/solution design, PM, security, and commercial areas. The problem is that this leads to duplication of costs and effort, as well as arguments over who has the right this is where the attention needs to focus, allowing the customer/citizen/patient control over their data, and freedom to transact when and how they want. At the London Borough of Croydon, we focused on both mediation and supporting skills development in the digitally excluded to move further along this path.”
Having just moved on from Croydon, after a previous long engagement at Surrey, Roberts is keen to make the most of the skills he has learned at the two councils.
“I have been very fortunate to build up a broad body of experience at Surrey from technical skills, to technical teams’management, business partnering, 1st line support, and then focusing on ICT partnerships and collaboration activities outside of the Authority, culminating in some major ICT procurements and innovative delivery contracts. This has translated very well into skills needed to be Head of ICT at the London Borough of Croydon.
"Croydon had a mixture of contractual and service delivery issues to improve, alongside a stalled major ICT transformation. I found my experience of initiation through to delivery of major services contracts to be valuable in negotiating improved contractual outcomes for Croydon, and my 1st line support experience valuable in lifting the quality of service delivery. Most helpful of all, was my ability to take standard technologies and services and think innovatively about how they should be framed together and used.
“At Surrey, I developed the Unicorn PSN partnership (which had 220 autonomous organisations participating when I departed) that was partly about an innovative SI contract through a large telco, and mostly about creating a collaboration vehicle. I also procured an early multi-authority cloud-based property asset management solution (PAMS) that proved data could be secured and when appropriate, shared in the cloud, not something encountered previously in that space.
So when I found that the London Borough of Croydon’s transformation programme had stalled, I was able to be brave, stick my neck out a little, and deliver a new Croydon strategy of Windows 10, cloud based apps delivery where available, and Citrix for all other line of business apps.
“I chose Windows 10 as the core business end-user platform some months before its first release date (the Beta’s were proving very successful), but took the risk because its role would be straight-forward. By moving core apps to the cloud, particularly moving to Office 365, and utilising both AWS and Azure and ensuring all remaining line of business apps would deliver via Citrix, Windows 10 just had to create a great end-user experience and be secure. It could also be exchanged for any bring your own device (BYOD) environment presented, meaning we could become device agnostic. The original contract was very traditional so this was a big shift.”
In looking for his next engagement, Roberts said he is keen to continue innovating and help move organisations on to their next phase of operation.
“This may be technology changes, or using data differently. My work at Surrey showed me the power of collaboration between orgs, but also the complexity in governance and data sharing, and commercial/procurement arrangements. The public sector is all about sharing and collaboration going forwards. Individual organisations have neither all the information they need to successfully complete end to end citizen tasks, nor the resources to succeed alone. So whilst complexity increases, so too does the challenge and the interest.”
Roberts believes he is able to provide advice because he has gained experience of both internal delivery and contract management, including selective and wholesale outsourcing.
“I have worked in partnership with multiple public sector bodies, creating joint governance of initiatives, alongside improving internal technology governance and ownership within the business. And I have taken emerging technologies and new contractual models and successfully applied them with good effect.”
Looking ahead to wider public sector trends, Roberts sees significant impacts from big data and the Internet of Things (IoT).
“When I was President of Socitm in 2014-15, I talked about the disruption being caused by digital, and the upcoming impacts of big data and IOT. For me, IOT holds great potential and excitement. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be gifted a smart watch and the impact it has had on me consciously monitoring my exercise and health has surprised me. The opportunity for wearables in health and social care, for prompting, monitoring, comms etc. is very powerful. Embedded tech in white goods and sensors for our environment to support Smart City initiatives is also a game changer that I look forward to progressing in a future role.”