As you head east from the City of London the change in surroundings is stark. The glass towers of commercialism are soon replaced by bleak, high-rise blocks and the endless sprawl of greater London.
One east end borough, Newham, is an area with a history of deprivation and has in recent years seen some of the highest crime rates in the country. But improvements are beginning to show and, as the home of the 2012 Olympics, its future looks far more rosy.
Richard Steel took that journey from the powerhouse banks of the city to the streets of Newham in 1989 and it’s a decision he has never regretted, talking about his career as a local government CIO at Newham Borough Council with real passion. And this year he will take on a new challenge as president of the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), with a raft of changes to push though in his one year in post.
By the end of March Steel will be incumbent, and he really is taking the hot seat. “We have been going through a lot of restructuring. My main ambition is to see Socitm re-established for all who work in IT in the public sector,” he says of its positioning. “We need to embrace what is happening in the wider public sector. Services are joining up.”
To do this Steel plans to reorganise the professionalism agenda and membership services at Socitm. He has bold ideas of how to achieve this, ideas that show his experience as a CIO in local government. In effect he is looking at moving Socitm ahead using a shared services model. Talks are already underway with similar organisations, including the BCS, on how they can work together and how some of the administrative burden of running Socitm could be outsourced to the computer society to reduce costs.
The changes at Socitm reflect two issues. IT in government is changing and Steel is honest enough to admit the organisation has lost its way. That honesty is something that anybody who has a conversation with Steel soon comes to recognise. There is little management speak or use of vendor-led acronyms, just the facts laid bare. Steel describes the increasing join between local and central government as difficult for “two very different animals”, and this presents an opportunity to Socitm.
Central government IT has not had a special interest group and the organisation can benefit its local government core by engaging with central government IT leaders.
Financial services group KPMG recently completed a corporate services review of Socitm and outlined some objectives for the organisation to achieve as it moves forwards. “The KPMG report is the first step and now we have some administrative and organisation priorities. The leadership lost its way, so we have been looking at the structure, the communications agenda and membership services. We don’t have an ethical code and I’m keen to establish one,” he says. KPMG identified financing issues and then created a set of development ideas for the organisation.
Steel is keen to get the ball rolling and at this month’s National Council meeting he will put forward his ideas for the changes, which will then be presented to the Socitm AGM in April.
Among the changes already in motion are a smaller decision making-team to streamline processes, with seven people involved rather than 30.
Situated three miles from the City, Newham takes in much of London’s revitalised docklands, including City Airport and the ExCeL international exhibition centre.
The borough is at the heart of London’s plans for the 2012 Olympic games. The games will see an 80,000-seater stadium built in Stratford – which will also be at the heart of a new housing development, Stratford City.
Newham has one of the youngest and most diverse population in the UK. Over 40 per cent of the 254,000 people in Newham are under 25 years old and more than 100 languages are spoken locally.
The workload of the organisation is also shifting, in recognition that the members as CIOs and IT leaders at various local government bodies are extremely busy.Therefore another change is that the elected leadership are make decisions, while the officers who work for Socitm carry out the resulting objectives. In another example of honesty Steel adds: “We also don’t make good use of IT for areas such as the management of membership,” something he also plans to change.
Steel takes over at Socitm at a time when faith in government ability to protect individual’s data has been seriously harmed by the mistakes made at HMRC at the end of 2007.
Steel is of course straight to the point and admits that the public’s faith in government IT has been damaged and that he fully understands why. But the debate has to move on Steel says. “It is not just about the IT department, but information governance, records management and ensuring the integrity of the systems. Information governance has been about box ticking, it now needs to become a priority, especially with departmental partnerships.”
To give true justice to his duties at Socitm, Newham has agreed to hire an interim CIO to keep Steel’s work at the council on course. “There is a benefit to Newham, it helps to enhance the reputation of the borough and some of the influence and the networking will rub off on Newham. We have been long-time members and have benefited so we are giving something back. I hope most local government bodies would do the same,” he says.
Newham is, for first time possibly in its history, in the world’s focus, as it is set to host the 2012 Olympics. Steel is optimistic about the games and realistic about what it is doing for his borough. “For the first time we have some negotiation muscle. The private sector goes where it can get the best investment, with 2012 people want to work with us so they can get a bit of the games action.”
Steel arrived in the Newham after a career at investment banking giants Morgan Grenfell, where he was assistant director. He was made redundant after choosing not to move to Milton Keynes, but you get the feeling he was looking for something else. “At Morgan Grenfell we felt chosen and that we could walk on water, but the Guinness scandal shook the comfort zone out,” he said. Having been laid off, Steel took his time selecting the next career move. Newham may sound like a strange choice. “I wanted to fix things. Newham was a chance to broaden my experience, I thought I’d only be here two years,” he says of the organisation he joined in 1989.
“When I joined I had the same luddite views of the public sector being full of work-shy skivers. There were a few, but on the whole there was innovation and a different attitude to managing a budget,” he says. And there needed to be. At Morgan Grenfell he managed an IT budget of £47 million, on entering Newham his budget was £5 million. “You had to find ways to deliver.”
The Society of Information Technology Management is the professional association for ICT managers working in and for the public sector.
Members mainly come from local authorities, police and fire services, housing authorities and other locally delivered public service.
Managers or consultants from organisations supplying ICT products and services to the public sector, or which support public services in other ways, can also become members.
With over 1,900 members from 550 different organisations including 98 per cent of all UK local authorities, Socitm provides a forum for the promotion, use and development of ICT best practice. It also plays a leading role in the implementation of local e-government.
He never once complains about this budget deficit though and ask Steel about his career at Newham and it’s a positive story of working with people, not just IT. “When I first started working in Stratford I had this weird feeling. I couldn’t place it at first before I realised it was having kids around. You never see a child in the city.”
With Newham Steel has been able to innovate. Unlike many borough councils which saw departments select an office automation tool to suit before a unified programme was adopted for the entire authority, Steel went straight for a council-wide automation tool, side stepping a great deal of cost.
Newham was one of the first councils to put its schools online, beating incumbent telco provider BT, and it was the first council to put in its own fibre network, which Steel claims saves a six-figure sum. It is now working with the Building Research Establishment to design guidance on ducting to enable buildings to offer joined-up digital technology for local networking.
Steel and Newham hit the headlines in 2004 when it carried out a high profile trial between Microsoft applications and open source systems. Professional services organisation Capgemini carried out a trial for Steel that compared the costs and benefits of the existing range of Microsoft applications with Open Source offerings. The trial was seen as the definitive test to prove the viability of Open Source as an alternative to Microsoft, but the result found Microsoft to be 68 per cent cheaper. Capgemini analysed the cost of moving Newham from its existing NT4, Office and around 130 tailored applications onto Microsoft or Open Source. The report also suggested that Newham would save £3.2 million over five years by upgrading its Microsoft technology.
Steel subsequently signed a 10-year strategic partnership with Microsoft involving Microsoft server products, Enterprise licensing and the Software Assurance scheme to allow Newham to upgrade its software. Steel said to the press at the time: “Microsoft now seems to be an organisation that is prepared to listen to us, is aware of its imperfections, and is striving to improve.” Steel added that the deal offered Newham flexible terms and the ability to adapt to the changing needs of a local authority.
Placed as he is conversation inevitably turns to the e-government agenda. “It is not over ambitious, but it is not pragmatically managed,” he says. “There has not been good scrutiny, for example Government Connect was a long time in coming. There should have been more focus on early delivery, you need to do things in realistic chunks.”
The problem for local government, he feels, is that local programmes that became priority number one did not have a top priority at central level. This is not the only cultural problem.
“There had been a tendency to set competing hares running against each other. Also, change does take time and just as something was taking traction it was dropped.”
Beyond his Socitm duties and challenges at Newham, Steel has more than a passing interest in British sports cars. Twice a year he tunes out the demands of work to the raucous sound of a TVR Tuscan Targa, one of the most vocal of sports cars about. He also joins many like-minded enthusiasts once a year for a TVR club tour, which this year includes a drive through Spain and Portugal, including the opportunity to let rip on a professional circuit.
Though car-racing doesn’t feature on the list of Olympic sports, it is clear that Steel is aiming to bring public sector IT up to a higher standard. And there is no doubt that his work at Socitm will help to do just that.