Local government – courageously working for the public good or self-serving bureaucracies? Depends on who you ask. Sunderland City Council CIO Steve Williams says the differences between the public and private sectors can be overplayed.

A background in ICI and work for a venture capital-backed telecoms start up left him adamant that the differences between his two private sector careers far outstrip those between the chemicals giant and the municipal council.

Williams is ambitious. He likes the idea of growing his department. But he also wants to bring some free market discipline to local government.

What he would like to see are fewer restrictions that would accelerate procurement times, as well as more incentives and penalties to encourage sharing of resources.

He hints that he would also like to see regional sharing of datacentre resources, though one suspects he’d prefer it if it was his datacentre. In local government, over the border is never far away.
On the day we met he was attending a CIO networking event hosted by Government CIO John Suffolk, attended by over 60 public sector CIOs. He clearly felt the trip to London was worthwhile, though he’s not without reservations about central government.

“Alongside procurement the big frustration is initiative overload. Central government departments sometimes have a tendency to push policy and lose sight of the sharp end. After all 80 per cent of interactions between government and citizen actually go through local government. We can be a useful counterweight to all that. When things are customer focused we can counter initiative overload with smart prioritisation,” he says.

Williams cites propriety as a key issue when dealing with suppliers. “Procurement of technology is one of the greatest challenges in my job and takes up a huge portion of my time. One has to show evidence of propriety at all times and absolutely no favouritism. I also need to know enough about what is going on in the market and this I get from talking to suppliers.

“We work within the various frameworks that the government has for procurement and the understanding of the true business value can sometimes be difficult to put on the balance sheet of a council. There is no easy answer.”

"I’m not a fan of restructuring. In four and a half years I’ve not implemented a major restructure"

In terms of extracting value from suppliers, Williams doesn’t have the clout of big central departments and says he needs to present multiple justifications for the business case.
A typical challenge would be to get a telecoms supplier to join up separate islands of wireless coverage at low or no extra cost.
Attracting and retaining staff is a challenge though one that Williams says is being met: “In our sector we can’t give big bonuses for good performance or pay consultancy rates.
“We benchmarked salaries against the market and I have increased the size of the training budget in IT by a factor of five to just below industry levels.
“With good working hours and the wide nature of the business we’ve had relatively few problems attracting and keeping people – with one or two exceptions,” he says.
“I’m not a fan of restructuring. In four and a half years I’ve not implemented a major restructure,” he says.
Where he echoes many CIOs is when he says his staff must “help our customers to become the most intelligent clients they can be”. Intelligent customers clearly make for better public servants.