Jos Creese, CIO of Hampshire County Council, has done a rather extraordinary thing.
He’s made local government the standard-bearer for excellence and leadership in IT, winning various accolades from industry and peers. He’s a reluctant hero, but says that if anything he’s achieved contradicts the idea that local government IT is a backwater or somehow lagging behind, then he’s pleased.
Perhaps as a result of this fame, he has a minder who doggedly rebuts the suggestion that Creese might speak about anything personal for this feature. The interview is to be strictly about Hampshire County Council and there’s no room to ask about his good works in IT or his personal role on the wider stage. Clearly, every Hampshire CC employee is on-message about the remit to provide value for money to local taxpayers.
When we meet, Creese assiduously deflects any tribute or reference to his personal leadership style and achievements. Ahead of the interview, IT peers and colleagues have enthused about Jos’s impeccable leadership credentials and his essential decency. “He’s got the ear of his CEO,” says one, but Creese will have none of it. “No, no. No more than anyone else,” he insists, and claims a lot of his IT success is down to the council’s overall organisation and ethos.
Certainly, the Council building in Winchester epitomises one of Creese’s favourite mantras, that IT should be an enabler of delivery that is ‘digital by default’. The architecture is modern and minimalist without a nod to the Wessex legendry kings, Arthur and Alfred, whose statues grace the High Street just outside. The ground floor interior and quad are open-plan, a wireless zone where huddles of employees hot-desk over a cappuccino. It’s a smart building and “the vision of my CEO”, he says.
Surely, there’s more to Creese’s success than a green building and the support of like-minded colleagues, though? The clues lie in his career history. He’s a statistician by training who worked for the Department of Health and realised early on that IT systems would let him do things. The realisation was very exciting and the austerity era has provided an unexpected opportunity to utilise IT to transform the way that local government delivers services.
“You can go around the country and see fantastic examples of where workforces have been liberated by mobile and flexible tools,” says Creese. “But,” he adds, “there are still a lot of local authorities that see IT as a support service – part of the plumbing – and the risk there is that it’s hard to give birth to the transformational opportunity.”
Two years into austerity, Creese has notched up some successes, but he’s convinced the most exciting work lies ahead. Efficiency and cost savings are just part of the story, he explains. The public sector network (PSN), an integrated network designed to securely serve public agencies across the country is a good case in hand. In piloting the roll-out locally alongside Kent County Council, “We’re saving £1m a year by consolidation – removing duplication of lines that existed. But actually the real benefit will come from what we can do with it,” he says.
At a technical level, the PSN will enable the sharing of contact data through a telephone numbering system that allocates numbers to individuals, not desks. “What we can’t afford is the old fashioned way of doing business – face?to-face for everything,” says Creese. “If I needed to contact a colleague in another organisation I could do that in a way that suits them. At the moment I have to go through switchboard.”
Looking further ahead, Creese anticipates a time when local authorities join up their services with other communities. “In future, we’ll be exchanging more data about the citizen and this has to be done on a secure basis. The PSN ensures that it is secure and interoperable and that we don’t have to go through a complicated ‘handshake’ at each end to make it possible. That piece is in place – now,” he confirms.
It will also require local government to find a better way to share information than they have done in the past. “If public protection agencies are exchanging data, they need to do in a way in which citizens have confidence that confidentiality is respected, and where IT is not getting in the way.” This is an issue about public trust, not technology, and it has eluded government for some time.
There was the doomed ID card scheme, of course, which proposed a centrally imposed scheme. Creese prefers the coalition’s approach of looking to see whether they can copy how the banks transact with multiple agencies, a model that puts consumers in charge of how they share their ID.
“If you peel away from ID cards and centrally mandated ID scheme, it’s not so different – there are plenty of third-party trusted agencies that provide unique ID to transact securely.”
The task, therefore, is to accredit some parties so that can transactions can occur across services in a way that is affordable. And of course it needs to be flexible as well as standardised. “You don’t need something hugely secure to renew a library book, whereas getting into accounts for social care has to be as secure as any banking system, anywhere.”
Mulling over the intricacies of any IT solution for the ID question quickly gets you to the heart of the challenge for the local government CIO. The complexities are an order of magnitude greater than anything you would meet in the private sector or central government, asserts Creese. That’s because local authorities typically have between 400 and 600 very diverse streams, and attempting to join them up can be a complex business.
“The challenge of a local government CIO is to create solutions that reflect the diversity of customers and partners with services that are as joined up, virtualised and consolidated as possible in order to minimise the cost. Because one thing we don’t have a lot of is money,” he says.
Achieving this objective means communicating clearly the position of local government to the public and to the civil servants in Whitehall, and communication is Creese’s strong suit. For the year to May 2011 he was president of public sector IT managers’ association Socitm and remains chair of the organisation’s Local CIO Council (LCC), and Creese has utilised these public platforms to proclaim the IT message from the boroughs and shires.
The Local CIO Council has proved a particularly useful conduit for getting the local voice heard, and Creese rues the fact that the group has come about too late to save the NHS IT programme. However Planting the Flag – a strategy for ICT-enabled local service reform – is a direct result of the LCC’s work and its voice is getting louder on how modernisation of local services through technology could and should take place.
Crucially, its representation is broader than local government, extending to unitary authorities and local services including police, fire and transport as well as the devolved administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. A lot of the legwork and democracy is undertaken by Socitm professionals: it’s definitely not “about voting old boys around the table”, says Creese.
A remit of the LCC is constructive challenge – to central policy and plans – but when it comes to discussing the relationship between central and local government IT chiefs, Creese is predictably discreet. “I don’t think there is a huge disconnect, more a lack of understanding sometimes between central and local services about what really happens in local services. One of our jobs is to bridge that gap.”
Can the CIO Council learn from their local brethren, say on how to manage their suppliers better? “I think it’s unfair to suggest they listen humbly to us,” he says. One difference between the two councils is that the work of the LCC is not prescriptive. “We’re not in a position to say one size fits all. For central government departments it’s a more reasonable approach, and to say ‘we’re going to adopt interoperable standards and we’re going to do it this way’.”
He’s spoken up about shared services, too, which is seen by many politicians as the panacea to cutting costs and deficit reduction. Here he sounds a note of caution. “You can’t have a single SAP system that we share with our neighbour Dorset unless you have a common way of running HR and finance practices – and that’s a much bigger call,” he warns.
Socitm and the LCC may have been crucial in getting central and local government more understanding of each other, if not exactly loved-up. But Creese’s personal contribution is immense; he’s a very personable communicator, and that, presumably is why he’s been so good at the day job as well as so effective on the national stage.
“If you’re doing anything where you cannot explain the benefit of IT then you’re likely to get challenged. If I’m buying an expensive disk array, I need to be able to explain why it’s going to help Joe Public who is paying our salaries. How can I explain to the main board that it is an investment they wish to support? If you can’t tell that story, stop it or find another way of doing it,” he advises.
When we go out into the quad for the photo shoot, he tells me quite seriously that if you’re in people’s faces about IT, they don’t like it.
“You need to be leading quietly in the background. Doing little injections of innovation,” he advises. Perhaps this quiet tact, packaged with incessant activity, is the secret of Creese’s success. He is intolerant of dead time and doesn’t ‘do’ queues. “I never queue for lifts, if there’s a queue in a pub I’ll go to another pub,” he says.
A cycle ride to work is useful thinking time and he likes to multi-task, the more tasks, the better.
“I might be building a cabinet in the garden, watching the clock and have a program running on the computer at the same time,” he jokes.
Notes and letters
Intellectually, it’s the same story. On his office wall he has a framed score of a Bach violin sonata, ‘a fiendishly difficult piece’.
“I like to read it and hear it in my head,” just to fill in the odd moment of downtime. His eclectic assortment of interests includes moths.
“They’re very beautiful, as beautiful as butterflies, and because they come out at night people don’t know much about them.”
Creese’s dislike of wasted time means he is dismissive of ideas cherished by certain sections of the IT community. Professional certification is a no-no, for example.
“The effort that you’d have to invest to get letters after your name is a distraction,” he says, although he adds that the level of professionalism in local government IT has massively improved in the last 10 years. “Outsourcing has not always worked well in the public sector, but IT professional management became much better at working with the private sector and managing the balance of risks between in-house and externalised IT provision.”
This worker bee mentality is probably essential at a local council where the work is never done, and the scale of the challenge is huge.
“It’s not just about deficit reduction, but about increasing transparency and reducing the size of the state,” Creese points out.
But it’s why he’s stayed local. “There’s no other sector where you’d get this kind of variety on a weekly and annual basis,” he says, stressing the feelgood factor “Even removed from the coalface, our IT work positively impacts the lives of people who live and work in Hampshire.”
It confirms the other insider comment about Creese being a ‘fully signed-up member of the human race’. When asked about his ambitions for the future, he’s modest. “It would be nice to see local interests reflected more in national policy,” he says. “But it was ever thus.”