Interview: John Jackson at Camden Council

John Jackson, Camden Council’s CIO talks to PublicTechnology about collaboration, the relationship with central government and the generational divide in the profession.

How would you say local authorities should handle the tension between aggregation and local flexibility?

One of the things that has been very interesting on aggregation is it gives us leverage to do things that are not otherwise possible individually. One of the challenges is moving the market towards open systems and operability and API publication to redesign services. That agenda would not be advancing at the rate it is without councils and central government working together on it.

As an example – 18 months ago I spoke to 60 to 80 suppliers about the need for better systems in gov. One supplier asked me “What are you bothering with APIs for? –that is stuff we do.” 18 months later I have got one CIO for big software houses telling me they are focusing on developing a platform of APIs to enable our products to be consumed by you and us to consume yours. That ability to change the market and accelerate innovation isn’t possible without aggregation and economies of scale and reducing the cost.

Where it becomes interesting on ICT is the degree to which you enable flexibility on that. This is where standards come in. I am passionate about this. The technological blueprint for particularly local government is around service oriented architecture. The problem local government faces is that we can’t afford to replace wholesale our legacy applications. Each has similar business processes – we all collect waste bins and pay people, for instance. Actually there are some differences in process due to local needs.

A lot of existing technology was designed for the mainframe era – not the 21st century. The great thing about the new architecture is that it allows you to redesign. You can store provision legacy data locally or in cloud. We have E-permit system which was difficult to use – lots of residents complained. Our business processes required paper docs and the site was a real eyesore. We worked with the supplier and residents to redesign the user interface. Used our integration to integrate work flows. And we used APIs  to link to our back office systems. This is a much better way of doing business. It is clearly customer centric.

There are also opportunities that allow both standardisation and interoperability, for example FixMyStreet, which has been developed as a cloud-based app. We used an Open311 standard to provide an interface between it and our internal systems – the supplier is paying for that themselves as a civic gesture – we are sucking that in and enabling two way communication. It is a technology architecture that enables us to mix and match processes and apps to enable the authority to grow more efficiently.

How will new technology change the relationship between local government and citizens?

If I was doing ICT banking in traditional way what I would do is I would make it possible to log on to look online and provide cool apps mobile. And I would make it possible for customers to pay when they are out and about at a party. I might add in some promotions from the company. This is all good stuff but fundamentally what it doesn’t deliver is a paradigm change in the business model. This is where bitcoin is fascinating – through APIs – It provokes you to think about why don’t you become the bank or a mortgage advisor or someone dealing with financial services. Rather than automating process through existing paradigm, it is reinventing it.

The API and the technology enable revolutionary change in money and the way we deal with finance. The same will happen with government. It is a fundamental rewiring and that is exciting. It changes the extent to which the bureaucracies and institutions are almost rewired out of the equation – it becomes more direct between someone who wants something and who gets something. What does that look like?

It changes the extent to which people and communities could take on responsibilities to do civic things for themselves rather than having institutions doing it for them. Citizens are empowered to act on their own behalf to deliver stuff and sort it out. I think it is those things that will happen. It is a very fundamental change.

Can collaboration happen organically without central direction?

The key thing is to start with the problem you have to solve. If you are talking about a local GDS then you are assuming there is a structural response to these issues. If you ask what problems are we trying to solve to deliver digital services better and more efficiently than we do today then that is your guide to discussion.

The question is why we should reinvent things 400 times in local authorities. Let’s reduce the level of duplication – if someone has something great then let’s share it. Let’s get away from doing lots of things in isolation – open source is important to that.

There is a lot of support for the concept of a broader alliance and sharing and more joint development. I have been having conversations with the Crown Commercial Service and others in central government on the concept of greater interoperability. There is definitely enthusiasm to do more of this. But it is not just about getting the technical people onside but the politicians and policy makers. This will not work if the political dimension is not there.

I don’t think we will every want a one-size fits all to local government tech. Some councils are better positioned than others. Some are already collaborating – where they have the capacity and doing it to standard, the sensible thing is share it. One way is to open source it and another to find a licensing model that would be cheaper than getting it from a private supplier.

But on the other side there are suppliers doing some really interesting stuff. They can provide big platforms. We need to stimulate them to provide products to enable this to happen. There is a natural instinct to drive suppliers down and get costs out . My argument is that this might affect their research and development capability. I am more interested them in changing their business offering.

Nobody wants to be stuck with proprietary systems. But nobody wants authorities to collaborate if nobody else knows about it. We have to find a balance.
Has central government got better about taking the needs of local government into consideration when devising ICT frameworks for the public sector?

I don’t think they took much any notice a few years ago. The National Procurement Strategy for Local Government in England has been a game changer. The Crown Commercial Service worked hard to get round to local authorities and talk to them and how we can develop frameworks. Where we have voiced opinions about the Public Services Network and the useability of G-Cloud they have listened to that and made changes. G-Cloud is evolving by taking account of the feedback.

Has GDS helped local government?

GDS has raised the bar in terms of what is digital about and what should it seek to achieve. The thinking and the culture have filtered down. The whole thing has injected a whole new way of thinking about tech in local government. I think about digital in a very different way just by them being there. It is influencing in a very positive way. What we should learn.

If local government was to standardise then we are going to need some capacity to fit it together in a similar way to GDS. Otherwise it is lots of individuals pushing in different directions. APIS have to end up in a repository – there is a need for that sort of capacity.
But I don’t think local government needs a GDS in the same way that central government did. There is something about local government is about local people and communities and staying close to that. We sometimes need to marry GDS with maintaining strong local creativity and passion. For me it is about bringing across best of GDS stuff but recognising you can’t impose a one-size fits all.

It seems that it was the younger generation pushing most for the idea of a local GDS – is there a generational divide within public sector ICT?

It is fascinating. There is a sense that the guys in the suits are slow off the mark in terms of seeing the opportunities and are not as open – this applies to a lot, but not all, CIOs. However, the younger digital guys are asking “Why are you doing it that way? Why can’t you get a group of us together and code it? Why aren’t we using social media? Why aren’t you using agile software development?”

But the grey haired guys have to deal with the practicalities of operating on an enterprise scale. If you can fuse the cultures of innovation with the guys in suits, then we are onto something. There is certainly different cultures but the CIO role is beginning to blur with the chief digital officer .

Open source is a classic example. 12 months ago there was a lot of cynicism, with some of the older guys believing that we don’t need to develop software. Now you sense the wind is changing – open source might be a way of doing things quicker. The new ideas are refreshing and driving us to a better futures.

Will digital transformation genuinely lead to some of the savings for local government that have been touted?

One of the things that is inspiring about local government is the scale of the challenge on austerity is forcing us and creating the catalyst for radical innovation and doing things we wouldn’t have wanted to do two years ago. We need the courage to stick with it. There will be things that don’t work and mistakes and emotive investments but sticking with this agenda of collaboration, risk taking and sharing is where it is at.

But for it to work, it requires changes in the behaviour of the organisation as a while. None of the digital stuff will happen if the organisation doesn’t want it. We wouldn’t have people answering the phone on headsets unless the council corporately wanted unified communications.

 I think we can go further with digital than we have gone so far. There are real opportunities to do government differently and reimagine it. Not disempowering people but empowering them. But we have to make sure that nobody gets left behind. If they are, then that adds costs and complexity. Councils spend most of their money on vulnerable people, who are the most likely to be disconnected. Empowering that group is a critical challenge to this agenda.

Colin Marrs

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