Suffolk Council CIO Mark Adams-Wright packing local punch

"The enthusiasm to take risks and make big changes is pretty healthy," says Mark Adams-Wright, CIO of Suffolk County Council. At the council's Ipswich headquarters he describes the journey the authority is on to become a thriving community that subtly embraces technology while remaining a rural idyll.

"There is a lot of common sense and rationality here, so when you do talk about technology they are pretty receptive," says Adams-Wright.

"We are focused, as an organisation, on being one that is fit for purpose and that is fit for the future," he adds.

Although Suffolk is home to the UK's busiest container port at Felixstowe and to BT's research centre at Adastral Park, they are the only large-scale employers in the area: agriculture, fishing and SMEs make up the bulk of the opportunities for residents. The challenge for the county is to balance its natural beauty and celebrated lifestyle with opportunities for both residents and employers.

"As a Tier One authority we are under huge financial strain and we have to find millions of savings. The government keep telling us that the austerity will go on and on, so in the authority naturally we have discussions on how the back office and front end operate," the CIO explains.

"From a technology view, the desire is to make it a county that can thrive. The traditional services - social care and schools - are undergoing huge change.

"Technology plays a major part in the transformation of these services, whether in making our services impactful or keeping costs down through the right level of service," Adams-Wright explains.

It's a time of massive change for the public sector: local authorities across the UK are repositioning themselves without any policy or guidance from the Coalition government. Schools opt to become academies and NHS Primary Care Trusts are being phased out for commissioning bodies. The government has suggested that local communities should have more say, but it is not clear whether communities will speak through the local authorities they already pay for.

"We are grappling with similar topics as other authorities and challenging ourselves in a really healthy way," says Adams-Wright. "This is not a closed shop, members of the council and the authority workforce are very positive and there is a good sense of engagement."

Adams-Wright says this has created a collaborative environment where it's "not as difficult to get things done as I thought it might be".

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If the authority is to change into a body that reflects the needs of 2013 and beyond, then so will the technology.

As Suffolk is a popular holiday destination, Adams-Wright sees mobility as essential to the county's growth.

"Mobile apps can improve the experience here; QR codes can offer value-adds to make the experience for visitors more relevant and pertinent to them. With mobile broadband increasing that sort of impact becomes invaluable."

Local knowledge

To seed mobile apps growth, Adams-Wright turned to the people that knew the most about Suffolk - the county's residents - and a hack day was organised at the shiny new Suffolk County Council offices and develop an app. Council supplier and information management vendor Jadu provided a library of templates for apps and a full Java development kit, but it was ideas that Adams-Wright was really interested in.

Suffolk County Council CIO Mark Adams-Wright

"We wanted a Suffolk app for Suffolk people by Suffolk people, so we got them to tell us what they wanted. We created a hotline for people to tell us app ideas and we ran workshops with staff to work out what data we had to work with and from their ideas, what apps were needed too.

"By the hack day itself we had already amassed 60-plus concepts and on the day we had a similar amount of people join us to code and develop apps. We really created a connection between the authority and the Suffolk development community and enthusiasts alike.

"The variety of people was great, we had seven-year-olds up to pensioners. In the end a 17-year-old from Woodbridge won the top prize with a schools closures information app that used simple green and red colour banners to inform Suffolk residents if a school was open or closed due to snowfall, for example. He impressed the judging team because he had a great ability to explain the app's logic, but he was not a developer - in fact he came at the last minute with a friend and now has an internship with Jadu.

"We now have six apps that residents can download. We decided not to make any major changes to the winning app so it and its success story can be showcased," Adams-Wright adds.

"To keep the mobile area fresh and relevant, I want to continue to develop our mobile apps through crowd sourcing. At the hack day we had people from Norfolk County Council as well as a well-known political blogger and the whole feeling towards crowd sourcing has changed here," he says.