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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: Hackney Council CIO Rob Miller on moving away from an IT or digital strategy

When Rob Miller joined Hackney Council in June 2016 as its director of ICT, he was fortunate enough that the organisation had already been through a transformation programme – not just with technology, but in its entirety – over a number of years.

In fact, it had gone from being renowned as a borough that was not succeeding to being recognised as ‘the council of the last 20 years’ in an award ceremony last year. In that period, it had transformed from under-performing to leading the sector in many ways, particularly with vast improvements on the educational side.

Alongside this, Hackney Council has worked hard on its IT; it brought IT back in-house from old outsourcing arrangements, giving it better control over costs and over the actual IT infrastructure. Miller explains that when he came in, most of the core IT had been brought up to date.

“Many of the problems which give CIOs massive headaches such as [switching away from] Windows XP], had all been dealt with,” he tells NS Tech.

But perhaps more importantly to Miller, the council has taken a different stance to many others within the UK.

“IT isn’t thought of as just the tin and network, the council has a track record of investing in information, so we’re one of the few boroughs which can use the data around our citizens,” Miller claims.

For example, the council was just going live with a digital parking service when Miller joined. This enabled the council to use its own data to verify drivers’ eligibility rather than having to query the credit reference agency to validate the person. Miller said this service alone would “save thousands of pounds”.

Miller wants to build on the work that has already been done, and he and his team are looking at how the council can move from a desktop IT experience to something that’s more mobile, encouraging its staff to collaborate more, and work wherever they are, in real-time. The organisation is currently in the middle of trialling Office 365 and G Suite to see which is the better product.

The council has also developed an app to allow citizens to check their balances – making it easier for residents to access figures, while also saving the council money on the contact centre which had been incredibly busy responding to phone calls.

In addition, the IT services team is making itself more available and providing a more personal service to staff by going up to different offices every fortnight, going to employees’ desks and helping them with any technical issues they may have.

On the flipside, Miller and his team are also working hard to make IT be seen as a core partner for the council, rather than just a service provider.

“It’s a mental shift that a lot of organisations have in moving from IT that is seen as a utility, to IT that is a core part of what services the organisation can provide,” he says.

This underpins the approach that Miller and his team have wanted to take when it comes to IT. When asked whether these different elements all form part of a wider IT or digital strategy, Miller says that while the IT team has some objectives and principles around technology, it doesn’t have a tech strategy.

“We’re moving away from saying we need an IT or digital strategy; we need a business strategy which IT and digital are a part of,” he emphasises.

And this means that Miller’s team has been working hard to make technology less visible to its own users.

“Previously, the director of housing would have to make sense of a mobile working strategy, a CRM project and a business intelligence project – he would have had to do the work to see how they would relate to the business strategy,” says Miller.

“Now we’ve turned that on its head and he’s running a clear programme on housing and it’s our job to be a part of that and see how technology can help him, while taking the complexity away – we’ll talk about his service rather than a different IT service,” he adds.

Data-based policy decisions

One of the most interesting ways that Hackney Council is using data is to impact policy decisions.

“Along with every other council, Hackney is trying to work out how to deliver some big cuts to budgets with minimum negative impact to our community. So now the fact that we have got our analytics data together means we can start to say ‘if we do that, and the effect is that’ and then our elected members can get a better insight of what their choices mean,” Miller states.

However, he admits that the data quality varies, and this has a big effect on how reliable the assertions on policy decisions are.

What’s more, many of the council members are also questioning how reliable the data is.

“It’s great that we’re getting asked questions like that because otherwise it can seem academic; so having members that are engaged and pushing us to make sure we’re using data intelligently is quite good,” Miller says.

In order to manage the data accordingly, he says that Hackney Council has a number of smart analysts who can understand how good or bad the data is.

“If we’re using analytics and automation, we need to ensure we’re not automating bad outcomes because of data quality,” Miller explains.

Data analysis and data science are two areas which are hard to recruit for however, and Miller explains that one way that the council is managing to upskill staff and get help is by working with SMEs – many of which through the G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes and Specialists Framework, two government procurement initiatives.

“We’re working with a number of SMEs on different parts of our digital work, and we’re getting good agile companies in who can move very fast, and who have got some really good people and that’s helping us build skills within the team as well,” says Miller.

“We want a good internal capacity but where we can supplement our own resources from the SME market, or even if there’s a need for specialist skills it can make more sense to buy these in, so it’s a mixed economy,” he adds.