In March seven local authorities came together to form the strategic body SE7 and a leader in this Home Counties group of authorities is Surrey County Council. Its head of information management and technology Paul Brocklehurst told CIO what the consortium will deliver to its residents.

The SE7 consortium will be led by Surrey and East Sussex and includes West Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Medway and Brighton & Hove councils.

The councils have a combined annual budget of £3.4bn and Andrew Povey, the new leader of Surrey County Council, said at its launch: “By ‘bulk buying’ we will enjoy economies of scale and provide even greater value for money for the 5.3 million residents SE7 represents. All seven councils recognise that in the current financial climate they will need to remove several hundred million pounds of costs over the next few years and this is one way we can help to achieve it.”

Brocklehurst explains that SE7 is a structured approach to a series of previously loose collaborations between local auth­orities in the south east of England.

“SE7 has four main priorities: waste, highways, procurement and ICT. These are the four big spends that have collaborative potential and ways of saving money and improving performance,” he says.

“The complexity of the contracts can be overcome,” he says honestly of the IT challenge that the councils collectively face. SE7 is almost born out of the collaborative nature of CIOs, whatever the sector.

“All the members have been working together for years but now we’ve come tog­ether as a CEO priority. The CEOs wanted something more formal to tackle the three big things we could make savings on in procurement,” he says of the more formal structure.

Seven up

Previously known as the South East CIO Forum, the new name reflects the wider-than-IT remit of SE7. Brocklehurst says members will vote on the issues that need to be addressed to keep the democratic structure to the organisation.

“We will all share out strategies and plans over the next three years,” he says.

We met Brocklehurst in the run-up to the general election and, looking back, SE7 is almost a precursor to the collaborative, joint venture nature that politics on a national scale has finally had to embrace, just as local government and business have done over the years. “SE7 is exciting, the biggest thing is to show innovation in practice,” he enthuses.

That enthusiasm, however, is measured against the realities of life as a local authority CIO. That’s not to say Brocklehurst is falsely optimistic about what he and SE7 can achieve, instead he likes to be clear that local authorities are extremely complex organisations with a multitude of users, customers and IT requirements.

“The council employs around 10,500 permanent or part-time staff, excluding teachers or senior Surrey Fire and Rescue staff. So there are lots of business lines, from social care, trading standards; the Fire Brigade and those 400 schools. So you end up doing lots of communications; and we have to share services with the 11 borough councils. The challenge for us is that people forget what local authorities are responsible for,” he says of the myriad public roles fulfilled by these bodies.

As CIO, Brocklehurst will be using SE7 to cut costs from his IT budget while improving services to both employees and residents, and he’s excited to talk about the opportunities he thinks SE7 will unlock.

“The really big thing is to make really­ big savings by changing the model of how we operate. Should we run our own data­centres or should we combine them? Public-sector procurement has not been that good, so we hope to be able to share applic­ations and licences. Using a common network and having fewer licences will save a lot of money, as will joint procurement.” It’s already happening: Brockle­hurst’s team has just finished a waste permits application for the BlackBerry that will be used by SE7 colleagues.

He is also excited by govern­ment IT initiatives beyond SE7. “The government IT framework is very good. G-cloud is about sharing. G-cloud isn’t really rocket science, but I wish it was marketed better. The Digital Britain report paints a picture that is quite exciting and will allow CIOs to think outside of the box and be radical.”

Surrey County Council has an annual expenditure of more than £1.7bn, but has to save £180m over the next four years or council tax will have to go up 10 per cent every year until 2013. The authority has already introduced a staff wage freeze and is reviewing the value of all services over the next three years. Surrey receives £127.5m from central government in funding, with its resident paying for 80 per cent of services, the highest rate of contribution in Britain, the council claims.

The IT budget for the leafy county is £24m, and with £4m to cut from it over the next three years, SE7 couldn’t have come at a better time for this CIO.

“I need a new network; the contract ­expires in 2013 and we are about to ­update the desktop and laptop estate, so now we have big buying power. There will be more group buying, which will be a good challenge to the suppliers,” he says.

A benefit of forming the alliance not lost on any of the CIOs is that they share a similar portfolio of applications. All ­seven authorities use the Capita-developed school management system, for instance.

“I have 140 projects queueing up to be done,” says Brocklehurst. Major ones include the upgrade of the 2200-user social­ care system to a web-enabled interface, and a new datacentre and disaster recovery facility. He has already begun discussions with borough councils, the ­police and fire service to source a shared facility.

Property is thrift

As Surrey and its SE7 peers look to reduce their expenditure, the authority is also hoping to reduce the number of buildings it uses and their inherent running costs by allowing its workforce to work more flexibly and to be increasingly mobile.

“We are heavy Citrix users and will be introducing a lot more secure home- and remote-working to reduce the cost of business travel and make the best use of the buildings we have.” For his part in the budget cuts, Brocklehurst has to cut the IT budget by £4m over the next three years. Although the requirement to make budget cuts has increased the pressure on him, he’s excited by the coming challenges at Surrey County Council and new leader Povey has been widely praised in the county for his ambition.

“The new leadership is very dynamic and it’s the best time to be here as its new people looking ahead. All councils have to save lots of money now, but they have to support lots of organisations.”

Brocklehurst came to Surrey having­ been CIO at West Sussex County Council for three years. That was his first step into the public sector having started in technology with Digital Equipment before spending a decade with KPMG. His first major IT leadership role was as IT director at GMAC, formerly the financial arm of car manufacturer General Motors.

“I went to West Sussex having been made redundant from GMAC, and I ­enjoyed the work so much more. It is much more enjoyable as it is about locals not ­objectives, so it is very ­dynamic. I thought it would be slow, but it isn’t. There’s a lot of breadth; GMAC was all selling and trading harder, faster, quicker. There are so many challenges of change here and to do them better you work in partnership.”