Staffordshire is a county that epitomises that irksome phrase ‘Middle England’. But it’s not the alleged Middle England of prejudiced anti-Europeans that some London-centric newspaper columnists claim make up the bulk of our population.
No, Staffordshire is that Middle England that just gets on with doing things and doesn’t feel the need to make a song and dance about it.
In the last 12 months alone the county has won major business investment from both Amazon and Jaguar Land Rover as it proves to big businesses that it has the resources and people with the right attitude to help them develop.
That resourceful ‘can do’ attitude comes across from the CIO of Staffordshire County Council Sander Kristel who doesn’t herald from the midlands but who, with the support of the senior team at the authority, has demonstrated that Staffordshire zeal for just getting things done.
In Staffordshire the multiple layers of local authority and health provision work as one and Kristel is delivering a public sector network for cooperation and major budget savings.
“The council has already saved £100m and needs to save a further £100m over the next five years,” he explains.
The authority is spending about £1.3bn per annum, he says, pointing out that the recent national focus on cuts was nothing new for Staffordshire Council, which has been on a savings agenda for some time.
“For us the economic climate was not a surprise. It is not an unusual situation, so that is why we have been making savings and why you haven’t heard of sudden library closures or job cuts, as there was no knee-jerk reaction.”
The county has been slowly transforming itself from its old heritage in heavy industry and potteries to a county that hosts high-technology engineering such as new residents Jaguar Land Rover and heavy plant giant JCB.
“Rather than close a library, our view is to see what other things a library can do. You can do a lot of service provision through libraries like the supply of blue badges.”
Kristel explains that residents of any county have little understanding of the two-tier model comprising a county council and district authorities.
County provides social services, schools and roads, while district councils pay benefits, collect the council tax and look after street scene issues like street lights.
“People don’t understand how it works, so the service provision from both tiers must be seamless and end-to-end,” he says.
“Inward investment is incredibly important for us as an authority. A prosperous Staffordshire is one of our main aims, people with work tend to be healthier and happier and we have been successful in that focus,” he says.
Kristel is part of the wider leadership team at Staffordshire responsible for the direction of the organisation. The council has been pushing for rapid roll-out of high-bandwidth broadband in the county to continually attract the likes of Amazon and large manufacturers.
Transparency through technology
Staffordshire has become a competitive county because of its focus on removing the perceptions of what services come from the county and district councils.
Technology is at the heart of how the tiers of local services work together in Staffordshire. A second-generation public sector network provides considerable savings to public sector organisations.
Local health trusts have joined the network, discussions with the fire and police services in the county are currently taking place and there has been talk of real shared service relationships with neighbouring local authorities.
“There are not many places where the health authority and the county council work together as closely as Staffordshire,” Kristel says.
“This is all about the people out there,” he adds, pointing out to the town of Stafford from the authority’s new office.
“We are trying to help our business deliver services to our residents.”
Integration is a term Kristel uses a great deal and it clearly describes the vision he and the authority have of how to ensure residents get the quality of service they deserve in return for being taxpayers.
The multiple layers of public sector service inevitably lead to high levels of duplication and by integrating the tiers Staffordshire is cutting out duplication.
Its social services teams, for instance, are moving into the new integrated health trust for the county.
“If an elderly person had a fall, a health worker would come and see them in the mornings to help out and three hours later a social worker would come and repeat the same things, especially in terms of gathering information from that person.”
The integration will also deliver IT savings for all three tiers of authority as there will potentially no longer be the need for a different CRM system at each level.
Staffordshire is almost a pioneer of the public sector network model now being demanded by the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.
It has had a network for the last five years that was shared by the county and district councils, Stoke City Council and the 400 schools in the community.
The existing telecoms, network and call centre contracts were due for renewal, and the hosted enterprise network replaces a series of networks on to a single infrastructure, which means that all the local bodies are sharing the overheads, creating an annual saving of £1m.
Kristel explains that in one town where there is a council building next door to a health authority office, both have been put on the same BT contract.
“We have taken a pragmatic approach, opting for copper not fibre optic. Copper is easier to deploy at smaller sites and we will rationalise our estate again soon; why dig a trench into these buildings?” he asks.
Although it could be argued that vendors are losing revenue through the shared services model, Kristel counters that many are getting customers they never had before.
“As the county council we take the strategic lead and a slight risk and then the partners come along and benefit from that. I ensure that I got the partners in the room with the supplier early and was honest about what we are trying to do.We did that with our PSN supplier Kcom, where the partner saw what they would pay out and what the contract would look like, and it made sense for them to join.
“The network is step one. We can provide services almost like a cloud so that organisations can run their email or document management over it,” he says.
Kristel says that the decision to use Kcom helped with partner relationships as the network is hosted in BT exchanges.
“The districts gain confidence from a relationship with Kcom as it’s a managed service and they can take our contract as an umbrella. Yet a lot of them are asking us to manage the contract on their behalf.”
Contracts in the public sector are an issue Kristel has strong views on.
“Over the last few years we have changed our approach to contracts. Previous public sector contracts were very tied down, but in this economy you can’t act like that. Each contract now states what the county council and its partners will work with. In return the contracts are longer, but with looser wording.
“The ability for others to use that contract as well is very important for us. My contracts need to allow flexibility and there much better understanding of this,” he says, adding that the need to put contracts out to tender has been a burden.
“We have systems that are old but work well and the business likes them, but the contracts are running out so we have to tender them and that is a waste of time,” he says, adding that while central government’s OGC contract frameworks do not allow innovation and flexibility, they were a good beginning for authorities.
The network is just one of a range of cost-saving projects Kristel has led at Staffordshire.
A move to Citrix thin client desktop applications on HP hardware gives the authority’s new HQ a desk-to-staff ratio of 7:10, making the building seem like a bank rather than a council office.
Voice over IP has been added and videoconferencing is on the way.
The authority is proud of its new HQ and screens at reception tell you it is saving the council £250,000 a year. Virtualisation has reduced Staffordshire’s datacentre fleet to two and each datacentre has just three racks in it.
Using the new PSN disaster recovery facilities via a reciprocal deal with a neighbouring authority is also being considered.
After shared networks, cloud computing is much vaunted as a great economiser for the public sector, but Kristel plays down its current capabilities as a cost-cutter.
“I’m not in the business of running tin, but at the moment cloud is more expensive.
This is a shame as we want to offer more value, but I can do a higher quality job at a lower cost, and the business case in the public sector is that I am paying public sector wages.
“Cloud makes sense to host things for a one-off like an SAP upgrade we did recently. Whenever we go out to tender we always request a SaaS or cloud offer and so far none have been cheaper.”
Kristel’s next big project is the adoption of a new social care system in association with the local health authority.
Unlike some authorities, Staffordshire is not trying to force its social workers to adopt apps and mobile working practices in the short term.
“A social worker’s job is to have a person-to-person relationship with people, not to hide behind a laptop,” he says.
It is in procurement that Kristel sees the divide between his business past and public sector present most clearly.
“This is the most complex environment to get things done and to prioritise. In the private sector it’s ‘Does it make money?’ In the public sector there is a debate about filling potholes or putting in a new social care system. If I want to get something done I have to convince eight district councils and a unitary authority.
“In private sector IT I can have a relationship with my supplier and I can reward them, which I cannot do in the public sector. The tendering process limits us in terms of time and resources,” he says.
But having proved that a visionary authority can be ahead of the guidance curve from Whitehall, Staffordshire has won plaudits from the Cabinet Office and Kristel has high hopes for the localism that is gaining traction in government, especially around public sector networks.
“The Cabinet Office stipulates a few standards, but it’s not heavy on them. The public sector network needs to be a network of networks as a national-level project is a step too far.
The latest standards are more common-sense than those that came from the Government Connect programme, which limits mobile working: I would have to build an enclave for workers dealing with the Department for Work and Pensions to be cost-effective, for example,” he explains.
Influence of IT
While Kristel does not have a direct line to the CEO — “I report to the CFO. I used to report to the previous chief executive, but this very much depends on your chief executive” — he is on the wider leadership team and says IT is very much part of the big picture in Staffordshire.
“You have a lot more influence and early warning of what is going to change in the authority,” he says.
Early warning is the most important thing as the European procurement process can take up to a year.
“The complexity of a two-tier authority is a headache, but that’s what I enjoy. It’s much more of a CIO role and I get a lot more involved in corporate initiatives,” Kristel says of his four years with Staffordshire.
Previously he had led IT at Telford and Wrekin Council in Shropshire.
“At Telford I had reached the level where there were no more real challenges,” he says.
He moved to the UK from the Netherlands in 2001 and began his UK career at groundbreaking ISP Freeserve.
“The management environment is very different. In Amsterdam we are quite blunt and some things here you have to be a little bit more political about.
“A real sense of customer focus is what I brought from private sector IT and it has changed over the last few years in the public sector,” he says of the sector that he’s been in since 2002.
“A lot more of a ‘can do’ approach, that’s what we must be more efficient about.”