On a bright, early spring day the ancient city of Winchester bewitches with its beauty. But peer over one of the splendid and ornate bridges and the swollen River Itchen, which has consumed the footpaths on its banks, tells you that recent times have been tough on this former capital city. Although it wasn’t hit as hard by the winter floods as nearby Somerset, the effects of the winter and climate change on Winchester are evident.
Local government in the UK has been hit on all fronts of late. Since the coalition government came to power local authorities and their CIOs have been dealing with a deluge of cuts. Add to the mix extreme weather, plus a steady flow of unwanted after-effects, and the available resources are truly being tested.
“The floods were pretty bad in parts of Hampshire and our resources have been diverted toward it,” says Jos Creese, CIO for Hampshire County Council.
“We had a lot of people not able to get into work, but we’ve had mobile and flexibility in place for a long time, which ensured services remained operational.”
When the winter flooding began in the days before Christmas 2013, Creese, like his peers across the UK local authority CIO community, was working with stringent budgets and a strategy to use technology to reduce the costs of running a local authority without damaging the quality of service.
“It’s going to become a much tougher environment,” he says of the austerity in local authority spending.
Creese has dealt with the above challenge in three phases: “We aimed to take as many of the cuts as we could early on, and that was a sensible move because it is getting tougher, not easier,” he says of the current economy. “Renegotiating contracts meant we could make some very significant cuts in IT.”
Secondly came citizen self-service and process re-engineering; third, to decide what is the purpose of a public sector and calculate where the total cost of ownership of the public sector could be reduced.
“Hampshire is already doing a lot of this consideration,” says Creese. “Our transformation programmes maximise the productivity of staff to be more flexible and to get the maximum return from our buildings and estate.”
On the role of the public sector, Creese, Hampshire’s CIO since 2001, is very clear: “Public service is predicated on local circumstances. It is about joining up geography and demography.”
To counter flooding and austerity, Creese sees collaboration and integration as foundations to the new public sector.
“The floods demonstrated the importance of the public sector working together, and it was a major activity for the county council,” he says. But it isn’t only when climate change damages a community that Hampshire collaborates.
In recent days Hampshire has launched an Integrated Business Centre (IBC) that draws together all the council’s common internal business process, such as HR, procurement, finance and payroll, to be shared with schools, Police and Fire services. This will reach up to 50,000 users, all able to self-service simply and intuitively over mobile devices.
Creese believes IBC is unique in the public sector, and demonstrates how business innovation comes directly from coupling technology opportunity with business creativity and a willingness to think differently.
The IBC programme, along with a range of other digital initiatives, plays a significant part in the plans to reduce costs and to empowering staff to be more productive, as well as to improve services to the public. The council has reported a need to make a further £93pa of savings by 2015, with more to follow.
In Creese’s time as CIO at Hampshire the council has successfully implemented a wide range of IT-enabled programmes – ‘workstyle’, the customer-service centre ‘Hantsdirect’, and much of the share IT infrastructure such as SAP and the Hampshire Public Services Network (HPSN) on which the new self-service functions are now being built.
“The ambition is not just efficiency, but to help our people do things the way they want,” he says of a major focus on mobility at the IBC. “We are making SAP easy and fast.
“Employees use their own technology, so we need to ensure feasibility. Data security matters a great deal and data cannot be vulnerable in any one place in the public sector. But we must not restrict mobile working,” he says.
Regarding the recent increases in security made to the national Public Sector Network (PSN) standards, Creese is supportive of the need for vigilance and rigour on containing cyber threats, but warns: “You don’t want over-complex and disproportionate security controls, which indirectly lead to workarounds or to IT being seen as a blocker to modernisation and flexible working.”
There is a need for the PSN and government IT to really understand the information and value in sharing it correctly, says Creese. “Social workers will share information for the good of the child in care. So our role in IT must not get in the way of that. There is always a risk of IT being about the technology, not the information.
“It is essential that we join up our infrastructures so the ability to share information is securely opened up. Public services will need to collaborate more in the future as we drive down and out into communities. The challenge is not to end up with an overblown central process; it must be as easy and intuitive as possible, and the measure of success is take-up.
“I think there is a lesson here for the private sector. It is nervous of sharing. Yet, why do I need separate cards, credit cards and a Nectar card? Why hasn’t IT solved that problem? Organisational boundaries must not get in the way of better service,” he says.
Creese is personable and always approachable, and therefore acutely aware of the need for technology to tread lightly in local communities.
“The idea of technology being dehumanising is the case if you do it badly. You have to find a way of using technology to get close to people.”
“We expect all our contracts with the private sector to be able to be shared,” Creese says of the vendor management aspect to the IBC.
“But the vendors don’t want us to be a licence reseller. So our partnerships have to be public sector and in our local area.”
Hampshire works with neighbouring Dorset and Oxfordshire, which Creese notes are “very similar” in their business activities and technologies. Dorset provides Hampshire with its disaster-recovery needs, while Oxfordshire is a partner in SAP operations.
“It makes sense to pool skills and capacity where we can,” he says.
Creese has used the G-cloud in areas of his organisation, mostly as a procurement vehicle. “The way the G-cloud is being used and the prioritisation to support small- and medium-size vendors and open-source providers is very different from where we came from in public-sector IT.
Credit must go to government CTO Liam Maxwell for this,” Creese says.
Hampshire County Council’s HQ in Winchester is a blend of the historic and ultra-modern. As you move from one side of the building to the other, the tone and atmosphere doesn’t change; there is a sense of purpose, blended with relaxed approachability. These elements are shared by the city: it remains one of the world’s greatest historic centres, and its Cathedral, castle and connections to Jane Austen root it in our national story. But this isn’t a museum: leading technology firms, among other sectors, thrive in Winchester and Hampshire, and the IBC and Creese are working to ensure the next chapter in the county’s long history remain strong.
Jos Creese CV
February 2001 – present: CIO, Hampshire County Council
May 2012 – present: Non-executive director, Society of IT Management (SOCITM)
March 2006 – present: Chair and founder, Local CIO Council
1996 – 2001: Head of IT, Southampton City Council