Ask anyone who has heard of the borough of Newham in the East-End of London and they may mention how poor the area is.
The Borough has 50 per cent unemployment. Average life expectancy is one of the lowest in the city and it’s a truism that if you get on the Jubilee Line at Westminster, you should take of a year for every stop going East until you get to Canning Town.
It is a first port of call for many of the city’s immigrant population and over 100 languages are spoken, but the borough is often just a stopping off point, with people arriving, setting themselves up and moving on to better areas when they can afford to. But according to Newham Borough Council’s CIO Geoff Connell, things are changing.
The council’s new head office, opened two years ago is a sign of this optimism, situated on the side of the Royal Albert Dock, across the water from City Airport.
The Excel exhibition centre is just down the road and from the second floor of the building where the IT department is located, it’s easy to spot the sports arena complex that will be used for the 2012 Olympic Games.
These organisations and others, such as the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, opened last September are the focus of hopes that the unemployment rate can be reduced and residents will be persuaded to stay in the area.
“In the seven years since the decision to hold the Olympics in the UK was announced, the resulting investment is equivalent to 100 years of normal investment,” said Connell.
Not only that, but the area should benefit from the general feeling of national pride when it hosts the games, hopefully creating a more positive outlook for the population.
Connell goes on to describe how BT and Cisco are investing in deploying superfast broadband in the area, hopefully creating a tech-rich enterprise zone similar to the M4 corridor on the other side of the capital. He says it is the first borough to enjoy ubiquitous availability of superfast broadband.
From the positive way he describes the area, it’s clear Connell has a special passion for his work and realises that his strategy can have an impact on the quality of the service the council provides.
Every penny he saves will go to a local population that needs much from public services. It's the council's goal to reduce its overall budget by £116m over the next four years. Connell has a remit to achieve around £11m in savings by 2015.
As we walked around the office shortly before Christmas, it’s clear that it is winding down for the holiday, but there is also a concerted effort to encourage remote and flexible working amongst the council staff, because it will help cut down on building costs, but also in preparation for the Games, which Connell thinks will disrupt public services provision to a considerable degree.
This is why his two big IT strategies in the run up to the games are remote working and online self-service. As important, says Connell will be beefing up the borough’s security policies.
Eyes of the world look east
He says: “The eyes of the world will be on us throughout the games and there is always the possibility that we will be a target at that time.”
Connell is building in capacity for 1,500 remote users by the time the games begin. At the moment he is up to 1,000 remote users with the capacity for 500 concurrently connected.
The infrastructural adjustments are arguably less complex than the cultural changes though and Connell has paid as much attention to acclimatising the borough’s managers to the new way of working.
One part of the process is consolidating a number of offices into the new site at Royal Albert Dock. Each workgroup gets only one linear metre of storage space. Document management policies have been tightened accordingly, making it clear to managers that they don’t have the space to spread out in the new building.
Connell says: “You have to make it real for people.”
He has also deployed a number of technologies to make flexible working the more attractive option, with follow-me printing, unified communications and introducing managers to collaboration tools like Sharepoint.
Connell says: “We are still evolving our use of Sharepoint.”
While the council is getting used to having staff work remotely, the other side of the story is the local population not having to come into a council office for every little query. Connell has developed a self-service portal so that a number of services can be obtained by booking them online.
Connell is using a Microsoft Dynamics CRM system for this portal, coupled with a master data management system, called Multiview. He is going through the top 20 transactions which make up 93 per cent of face-to-face contacts with citizens.
Another ongoing project for Connell is the shift to shared services in the back-end. He believes the borough’s IT infrastructure is mature enough to take on the requirements of other nearby local authorities.
This he has already done by integrating the systems run by Havering Council.
He says: “We use the same infrastructure, but we run different applications.”
He takes £200,000 a year from Havering’s budget, but in return gives the council £500,000 in savings.
On top of that, the shared service initiative has provided mobile and flexible working technologies which helped Havering to get rid of one of its main office buildings.
Connell said the next stage for his shared customer services project is to bring in another borough, Waltham Forest. He also said two other councils are also interested in joining the scheme, so there appears to be no upper limit to the size of the shared services model that he has adopted.
Alongside this is a more integrated approach to ERP systems with a strict out-of-the-box focus, called Program Athena.
Underpinning this is an approach Connell calls One Oracle — mapping out a template for participating local authorities to implement their ERP systems in the same way and gaining the buying power by procuring systems collectively.
Connell says this project is in the procurement process at the moment.
He says: “There just isn’t the money to do what we did in the past. That’s the burning platform in this instance.”
Remote working, web-driven self-service, shared services and collective procurement: all of these things create a strong argument for developing systems over cloud services and Connell is a fan of the business model.
He thinks that within five years most of his services will be cloud sourced. It’s going to take that long, not necessarily because the technology isn’t ready but because he has a legacy estate that needs to earn its investment before he powers it down.
Part of this powering down process is bringing his suppliers with him on this journey into the cloud.
He says: “Success is about making collaborations with your suppliers. You can’t do everything from scratch. You have to find partners who are willing to be flexible.”
Connell puts his suppliers in two camps. First there are his core suppliers, such as Cisco, HP and Microsoft, which he thinks have a good understanding of the direction the market is likely to take.
The others are line-of-business applications vendors which he thinks haven’t embraced the developments of the cloud model quite so well.
“We’ve got more work to do there,” he says.
Connell has 14 years with Newham Council under his belt and although he officially headed up the IT department there since 2008, he spent the previous year filling in the role while his predecessor Richard Steel took a secondment as SocITM president. He did such a good job while his boss was away that Steel decided not to come back.
For him, the defining tasks are either focusing on business outcomes or delivery models.
He says: “The real trick is working out when the organisation needs me to focus on which one.”
Staying on top of this duality is dependent on having a strong connection with the council’s senior stakeholders and Connell makes sure that he also reports to the board at least once every quarter.
For the next six months though he is sure to be getting lots of attention from his peers, as they find themselves the focus of the whole world.