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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: Manchester Council CIO Bob Brown on providing social value through tech

Manchester City Council’s current ICT strategy, put together by the chief information officer (CIO) Bob Brown and his team, is aligned to the overall goals and objectives that the local authority has, and the ambitions that the region has of being a digital exemplar.

According to Brown, the city is recognised across Europe and beyond as a “smart city of the future”, and the changes that are occurring internally from a technology perspective are moving in tandem with reform in health and social care and economic growth in the Greater Manchester area. Over the last few years the council has been working on moving away from legacy platforms towards products that are tailored for user experience and give the council the opportunity to deliver transformational change.

This has included moving away from what Brown referred to as “the rather old and legacy” e-mail and calendar platform LotusNotes to Google’s G-Suite platform. It is now the largest local authority in the UK to be using G-Suite and it is benefiting the organisation in more than one way.

“There’s not only cost and efficiency benefits but it is fundamentally helping our organisation to transform internal ways of working as we are adopting a cloud-first strategy to enable us to work in very different and integrated ways,” says Brown.

This means that employees may not necessarily need to use a meeting room as they can hold their meeting virtually and collaborate on documents over Google’s video conferencing app Hangouts.

“It’s massively helped our organisation which is very diverse and large, and operates out of hundreds of locations. It means we don’t have to travel or print as much and we can engage in different ways,” he says.

Another big move to cloud software is in the IT service management area, where US company ServiceNow was selected; again replacing legacy technology that wasn’t working effectively.

“ServiceNow is being used to manage problems that colleagues have with architecture or with apps and it enables them to self-service and report issues themselves,” Brown explains.

“Having a core infrastructure that is always working and that we can bring back as fast as possible if any failure does occur is important, and ServiceNow helps us to make sure we’re on top of that,” he adds.

Every decision – including those to go with Google and ServiceNow – is taken with three priorities in mind; the requirements the organisation has as a whole, the affordability of the product or services and the social value that can be provided as a result of working with the vendor and using its products.

“For us, that basically means from a technology point of view we try to associate ourselves with organisations that throughout the contract award will generate economic benefit in the widest sense to the region,” Brown says.

“This is important to us as it leads to economic benefits, employment, investment and in the context of the relationships we have with our partners, every pound we spend on an external solution is recouped through social value in the region,” he adds.

Manchester City Council has therefore taken an approach in which it wants to work with organisations that will employ its citizens, use its transportation networks, pay council tax, attract people to go to the universities in the area and retain people with those skills in the region.

“It’s no secret that the [northern] headquarters of Google is in Manchester and there is a [digital sills training space] Google Digital Garage in Manchester too and that is underway on the basis that the council awarded the contract to them – that is social reward as a result of our work,” he says.