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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

IT Leaders: Camden Council interim CIO Omid Shiraji wants area to be ‘Centre of Data’

Camden Council is in the midst of a big change programme. It had signed a shared digital and ICT service agreement with Islington Council back in September 2015 with the aim of saving the councils a combined £4m-a-year. Haringey Council then joined the agreement in October 2016 in a more ambitious programme of change, enabling savings of £6m a year across the three boroughs.

A month later, the three councils hired Ed Garcez as the Chief Digital and Information Officer of the shared service. He would embark on a programme to build a new ICT and digital team that would enable the councils to share services more efficiently.

However, this didn’t mean that Camden Council wanted to let go of their interim CIO, Omid Shiraji. In fact, they’ve asked him to stay on until December this year to ensure that the transition goes smoothly.

In an interview with New Statesman Tech, Shiraji explains that he has been tasked with providing some extra bandwidth for Garcez on the CIO front as Garcez is focusing much of his energy on Haringey and Islington.

“I’m actually working as more of a CIO consultant at the moment. It’s Ed’s team, so I’m there to provide him with a bit of capacity and handling some of the transitioning, operational and strategic elements until Ed has his top team in place,” he says.

Shiraji continues to work on a number of initiatives: a smarter working digital transformation programme, a move to Oracle’s ERP cloud product, and a shift to Microsoft Office 365. In addition, he has been working on digitising the council’s print and mail which he says has already yielded significant efficiency improvements.

Camden: The Centre of Data

While Shiraji and his colleagues have been focusing on several projects, the council has set its sights on the bigger picture: becoming the centre of data in London.

It has been working on data programmes for years, and in March, it launched Open Data Camden, a platform intended to help residents, businesses and community groups to access important local information more quickly and easily.

Shiraji believes that Camden is ahead of other councils when it comes to data usage, particularly in London.

“Leeds has done really well in bringing together local agencies like health partners and Camden are moving into that space – but from a London perspective, I think Camden is the place that is leading,” he says.

This has meant that the organisation has been looking to attract data professionals at a range of levels and domains.

“We’re looking at how we make the borough attractive to data professionals, and doing that through professional qualifications, educational provisions, and having the right companies around us. You look at the Knowledge Quarter that there is in Camden: the likes of Google, UCL and massive research organisations,” he says.

The council is also working with numerous SME partners and other larger businesses, which could help it to boost its reputation in the data field.

“Camden will be the centre of data, and it can help us to attract talent from all over the world, helping the borough but also the council,” he states.

“We’ll be able to harness that talent for the good of the residents,” he adds.

Government hurdles: Brexit, HMRC and GDS

But Shiraji’s job has been made a lot harder by what he calls “the double threat” of Brexit and the IR35 regulations.

“It’s caused difficulties and I think I’ve seen a talent drain, the very best are moving outside of the public sector,” he states.

Shiraji adds that it has been particularly difficult for those in the interim and contractor space, those that he says who have ‘portfolio careers’. In this type of career, a portfolio is built up as the contractor works on different projects he or she likes, rather than spending a long time working for a company that they want to work for specifically.

“The government policy along with Brexit has been very detrimental to the kind of portfolio careers people have in technology,” he says, adding that the public sector is struggling more so because the same regulations haven’t been applied to the private sector.

But an IT skills gap has been something that has been mentioned for years, so what makes this any different?

“In my experience in the sector, there are a lot of talented, dedicated people with skillsets that want to come and do something good. There is a general tech skills issue, but it wasn’t specifically in the public sector. However, since the IR35 rules, the talent we’re seeing in the marketplace that is attracted to us is very different,” he adds.

This isn’t the only area of government that has been of concern to Shiraji. He says that the government’s transformation strategy, published back in February had missed a big opportunity to ensure local authorities and the Government Digital Service (GDS) would officially work together.

For a number of years, local government CIOs have been calling on GDS to work more closely with local authorities –giving councils high-level expertise and standardisation to deliver local public services. Just prior to the strategy being published, Shiraji had seen a much more proactive engagement between GDS and local authorities through his role as chair of the local digital coalition, which brings together the leading local authorities in England.

“We were having frequent conversations with GDS on how we could work closer together and what that collaboration would look like, but I’m disappointed that the strategy wasn’t as explicit as it could have been to reflect those conversations,” he says.

He states that the local digital coalition is “having to make its own hay”.

“What we need is a national approach to enable us to do that, because we don’t have the resources or capacity for us to do that ourselves,” he states.

Meanwhile, Shiraji hasn’t decided what his next adventure will be after December. However, after working in the private and public sectors, he is interested in senior IT roles at not-for-profit organisations. Despite his concerns around Brexit, IR35 and the transformation strategy, he hasn’t ruled out working in the public sector again.

This is the second in a series of IT Leader profiles on New Statesman Tech. The first interview, with former head of GDS and Co-Op CDO Mike Bracken, can be found here.

Follow Sooraj Shah on Twitter @Sooraj_Shah