Q&A: John Grieve

A chat with the corporate ICT manager at The Highland Council and SOCITM Scotland committee member, about promoting computer science in schools.

What does your role involve?

The Highland Council outsourced its ICT service delivery in 1998 and is now reaching the end of its second generation contract. Since 2012 the council has adopted a multi-supplier strategy and having initiated an ICT reprovision programme I’ve handed over the competition phase.

I’m still involved in the competitive dialogue but I am now concentrating on planning the implementation phase and transitioning to a replacement LAN/WLAN supplier and SWAN.  

A more personal objective is to mentor and develop my colleagues so that they are ready to take over from me – and to encourage them to bring their own approach and expertise to the role as an ICT managers’ life will not get any easier in the future.

What do you consider to be the most imminent challenge in your line of work?

Promoting the role and value of ICT as a professional discipline. As end user devices and software as a service have become commodities it appears to me that organisations are failing to recognise that secure, assured, integrated systems still require skilled staff to implement and operate.

This is not protectionism for ICT staff. Rather it’s saying ICT has to evolve and concentrate its key skill sets and demonstrate these add real value. The future of ICT is therefore about security, networks and integration providing a core ecosystem into which applications are “piped in” and users can connect via a device of their choice anytime, anywhere.

What has been the most rewarding piece of work you’ve undertaken?

The initial outsourcing of Highland’s ICT through what was then a very innovative PFI deal was a career high point and the subsequent transformation of our ICT capability through that initial contract was excellent.

I also rate building the Pathfinder North partnership – for aggregated broadband procurement – after the initial government lead project failed as this gave me my first real opportunity to negotiate cross authority at a chief executive/senior member level.   

How can Scotland bridge the digital skills gap?

I’d differentiate between broad digital skills and ICT professional skills; I don’t think the difference is understood. Schools are the key starting point. The new SQA syllabus for computer science is very good but unacceptably many policymakers, schools and parents don’t understand what Computer Science is, believing that providing computers for all and teaching how to use Office applications and search tools is the same.

Additionally, I’d develop computer science further in schools to demonstrate the wider skills required by industry to further dispel the other myth that ‘computing’ is for geeky boys.   

Which new technology excites you the most?

Software defined services. I’m a radio amateur and Software Defined Radio (SDR) has revolutionised even the amateur radio market in the last decade. Seeing how different software can change instantly and totally the functionality provided by a standardised hardware platform demonstrates to me the potential of software defined datacentres.

This gives power to service providers to virtualise and hold everything securely in a data centre and let customer ‘Chose Your Own Device’ for access – translate that to delivering digital public services.

What’s your favourite app and why?

Keeping track of things to do, accessing information, notes and articles I want to read later is always a challenge. I don’t have a single favourite – that’s impossible (for me). What is possible is to mix and integrate and work cross platform so I use Dropbox, Todoist and Evernote.

What, for you, will 2016 be the year of from a technology/digital standpoint?

I’d like to say shared services – both sharing ICT services but more beneficially implementing shared business applications. I’m a strong believer that education, social and health care should be delivered by public bodies but for support functions, particularly where there is a competitive marketplace, the public sector should exploiting and shaping this.

In times of austerity this is vital if frontline service funding is to be protected. For digital public services to be truly delivered in an efficient manner then the numerous replicated support functions need drastically rationalised. So far there is little evidence that shared services on the scale the policy documentation envisages will happen without legislation.

The responses presented are John Grieve’s personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of The Highland Council.

For 100 days, Public Technology sister publication Holyrood Connect is running through its Tech 100 for 2015, profiling the key figures driving the digital agenda in Scotland​

Colin Marrs

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