A private eye: Manchester’s CIO on moving to the public sector and improving supplier relationships

Bob Brown might have left the private sector, but Manchester City Council’s chief information officer is certainly bringing his corporate experience to bear on his first public sector role. Rebecca Hill asked him about his first year in post. 

Manchester City Council is based in the city’s town hall – Photo credit: Parrot of Doom, CC BY-SA 3.0

“There are some compromises you choose to take,” Bob Brown says of his decision to move from industry to local government last year, when he took on the role of chief information officer at Manchester City Council.

At the time, in October 2015, he had just completed a six-month-long analysis of the state of his future council’s ICT department and services as an independent external observer. But after the council’s top team asked him to apply to take the council through the changes he’d recommended, Brown couldn’t say no.

“I’m a bit of a completer-finisher,” he says.“Having redesigned the service, reorganised its operating model, designed the organisational structure and designed an investment strategy, there had been a lot of personal emotion invested in it as well.”

And for Brown the chance to make these plans a reality was the push he needed to switch from the private sector – he was director of strategy at insurers Aviva before starting the analysis work for the council – to the public.

“The reality is, it’s not paid as well,” he says candidly. “But the challenge of being able to take something to where it was looking to go was an element of compromise I was willing to take.”

But beyond this, Brown dismisses the notion that there is a gulf between private and public sectors.

“I don’t have that stereotypical view that one sector is crazily different to the other. There’s an IT job to be done, irrespective of what organisation it’s for,” he says.

“There are some differences – this is smallest team I’ve had for years and years, and certainly in budget terms it’s at the lower end of the scale – but the nature of the complexities are very similar.”

For instance, he says, both involve a lot of working across many locations and managing multiple stakeholders, and he is adamant that the bureaucracy that is normally associated with government is no greater than in private companies.

And, he argues, local government has to be very careful about every pound it spends, so it is reasonable to expect scrutiny of both decision-making and delivery.

But this doesn’t mean Brown won’t push for extra cash from the council.

Take his approach to recruitment. Within the first eight months of his official start, nearly all of the 11-strong ICT team at Manchester had changed, and all but one of these new recruits came from outside the public sector, seemingly going against the current tide of government workers leaving for better paid jobs in industry.

Echoing the ongoing debate at the centre of Whitehall, Brown says that ICT staff play a specialist, pivotal role in the council’s plans, and that Manchester needed to offer a more competitive salary if it wanted to get the best talent.

The council’s pay structure for IT staff “might constitute something that’s slightly outside the norm”, he says, but his approach was necessary to get a team that was able to meet the “quite aggressive” timeframe set out in the strategy.

“There’s a recognition in the boardroom that if the IT isn’t there and it isn’t delivering or enabling the business to go in the direction it needs to – embracing more digital services for example – then we’re not going to deliver the savings,” he says.

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Nonetheless, austerity remains a challenge for all councils and this is where Brown’s commercial experience seems to be paying off. As the local authority’s estate is shrinking, he says, staff are having to become more mobile and flexible – and he is aiming to ease the change by rolling out a whole new range of smart devices across the council.

“Nobody has a BlackBerry anymore,” he smiles, before adding that Manchester has worked with a supplier to get a new suite of devices “at no cost to the council”.

“It’s part of our negotiation with our supplier,” he says. “Part of the reason you get someone like me is the commercialism about how we maximise our relationship with our partners.”

For instance, the council’s ‘Know it All’ service – similar to the Apple Genius bar, allowing council employees to take their troublesome devices to IT staff for treatment – is notably well-equipped, with large touch-screen TVs and soft furnishings that have been gifted from suppliers.

But there is an element of reciprocity in this relationship; Brown says that he shared an early draft of Manchester’s ICT strategy with suppliers to promote a more open relationship.

“It’s really helped us work much more transparently together, so when I ask for them for help there’s a real desire to help because we work with each other in a very mature way,” he says. “When you start having those mature conversations, the one about having to reduce 10% of revenue can usually be accommodated.”

Brand recognition

But there’s also surely a kudos for the suppliers in being associated with Manchester. “We’ve got a great brand here,” Brown admits. Has he had more success in building this relationship because of that brand; that extra impact?

“I think there’s a scale of ‘oomph’ – Manchester is probably at the higher end, but I do think that every local authority needs to invest in having good commercial skills,” he says.

And that brand is partly what attracted Brown to the job in the first place – not to mention helping him to recruit his crack team of IT staff.

It’s clear that it’s a good sell: the council is at the forefront of the devolution agenda and has arguably two of the most influential local government leaders in the country in form of chief executive Howard Bernstein and council leader Richard Leese.

Both Bernstein and Leese clearly want Manchester to lead where others will follow when it comes to growth and health reforms, and had already put their money where their mouths were in commissioning the review of ICT at the council.

Brown acknowledges that this has made it easier to gain the political backing that some councils find a more difficult sell, especially given that he was brought in to “tell it like it was”.

And it seems that starting out at the council with a straight-talking attitude has allowed him to establish a good relationship with the leaders.

“Richard and Howard are challenging individuals, as you’d rightly expect, but they’re also individuals who have given me an ability and a freedom to, over a period of time, earn their trust,” he says. “And that is predicated solely on continuous delivery. You say you’re going to do something and then you evidence by doing it.”

As an example, Brown cites the council’s former reliance on physical data centres. “Moving our data centre had taken years and years of activity prior to us arriving. We arrived and did it in six months. That sort of thing earns you, over a period of time, respect.”

Call waiting

When asked how much progress the council has made with implementing its ICT strategy, which runs until 2019, Brown says there is much more to do.

Integrating health and social care is high on the list: “We are clearly going to have to collaborate more as a system. Our hospitals are going to have to work differently in order to support and service the people,” he says.

“The information that we have and hold is in isolated pockets of systems all over the council; and then we need to ask how we link GP, hospital, acute data and all this other information so we can make streamlined, fact-based decisions more quickly.”

Of course, devolution offers the council more flexibility than other local authorities have: for a start they are not waiting “in any shape or form” for central government’s review of data sharing – launched after the cancellation of care.data – to report.

Again there is an echo of his commercial thinking in his answer: “If we can design a system that works and can work across an estate like this, it arguably could be a standard that others might want to adopt,” he says.

But there’s one thing that about Brown that seems instinctively different to the stereotypes most commonly associated with private sector bosses, and that’s his approach to management.

His office – despite its one glass wall – is right next to the rest of the department, and Brown extols the benefits of sitting with his team, and points to awards that have been won by the IT service desk.

The improvement in his department’s service desk – the team increased the ratio of successfully answered calls from 45% to 90% in a year – is obviously one of his proudest achievements.

He has a screen that monitors the calls waiting in front of his desk and if the numbers start ramping up, everyone in the team – including Brown – “jumps on the phones”, he says, to keep on top of those numbers.

But as well as taking more of an interest in the service desk, Brown has brought in more staff, invested in technology to help them and offered them on-the-job training to help them advance in the council; people now see others moving up to be security analysts or developers and this has motivated the whole team, he says.

This forms part of his advice to other councils. “Build good relationships with colleagues and staff, be seen and don’t take yourself too seriously. But go into it with your eyes wide open; it’s hard work and it can be tough,” he says, before adding: “And try and enjoy yourself.”


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