‘The skill set for any CIO is the same’: Socitm president Geoff Connell on moving from borough to county

Geoff Connell took up his role of CIO at Norfolk County Council in August last year. Rebecca Hill asks him how he found the change from the London Borough of Newham, and finds out what’s on his to-do list.

Geoff Connell, who started at Norfolk in August, has data analysis in his sights – Photo credit: Socitm

You would expect the move from an inner-London borough to the relatively rural county of Norfolk to come with some major differences. But Geoff Connell, who recently left his position at Newham Borough Council to become head of information management and technology at Norfolk County Council, says the similarities were one of the biggest surprises.

“There are some similar challenges – joined-up thinking and getting economy through partnership working – it’s just the context that is different,” Connell says. “The skill set for a CIO is the same whether you’re in London or a county council.”

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Connell – who is also the president of Socitm, the association for IT and digital professionals in local government – says his experience of running the shared IT functions for Newham and its neighbouring borough of Havering came in particularly useful.

“I felt my shared services experience would be less relevant coming here, only to find that we are running shared services, because of the two-tier nature of the area,” he says. “You have county and district, with district doing council tax, benefits, electoral role and so on – and we run some of [those IT functions] for the district.”

Nonetheless, Connell says the scale of the geography was a big change – from 320,000 residents in around 12 square miles to 900,000 across thousands – and the rural dimension “provides its own challenges”.

The county, he says, is struggling with a lack of connectivity, speed and poor mobile data, and one of its priorities is to boost this to 95% coverage by 2020.

Changing the DNA

But top of Connell’s priority list when he started was addressing issues with the Digital Norfolk Ambition project between the council and HPE, which the council had admitted was running over budget back in 2015.

“I arrived at the point where it was coming up for a mid-term review,” says Connell. The team looked at what had worked well – and what hadn’t – as well as considering how the changes to local government funding and technology had affected the deal, which was struck back in 2013.

“We kept doing a number of things that were working well and de-scoped things that either hadn’t worked well or where the world had moved on. There was flexibility within contract – it’s been reshaped but is largely focused on doing the same things.”

For instance, he says, one of the major problems with the project – the provision and running of the laptop estate – has now been resolved, while some data analytics tools that “weren’t proving to do what we hoped they might” were de-scoped.

“I think organisationally, we weren’t quite ready to do some of that analytic work. But we might end up doing those things in the future,” he says.

Indeed, data analytics and data sharing is clearly high on Connell’s agenda, and he stresses the importance of supporting staff to build the skills to make the most of the data and to work on creating good, core data and technological capabilities.

“The whole organisation is focused on using data more effectively, and that’s because we know we have to target our increasingly scarce resources much more effectively,” he says.

“You need to show people the insights they wouldn’t have if you hadn’t brought together that data”

In this way, Norfolk, with its understanding and drive for data analytics, is towards the front of the curve in local government. For those working in organisations that are less sold on the importance of data, Connell’s advice is to lead by example.

“You need to take the opportunities to pull together some really comprehensive data that supports the decision-making,” he says. “Show them the insights they wouldn’t have if you hadn’t brought together that data from different places.”

Of course data protection is an issue – and Connell says that the council has used a recent visit from the Information Commissioner’s Office to “up its game”.

However, he adds that it was important that the team didn’t use it as an end-point, and instead looked at it as part of continuous efforts to improve understanding of data protection and data sharing.

One part of the council’s success on this front – which Connell describes as one of the biggest pieces of work it has done since he started the role – is making sure that the people working on data protection also have a role in data exploitation.

“The reality is you need someone who can think the art of the possible –asking what we can do with data to reduce costs and improve services – and also look at it and say, ‘We can’t do that; we can do this’.”

Changing cultures

Connell also wants to see councils making more use of the cloud. Although he acknowledges there has been some reticence within councils (a number of surveys have indicated a lack of expertise or strategy on the cloud), he says there are some good reasons for this.

“For a start, the funding can be a challenge because it often means there’s more capital than there is revenue and shifting to the cloud is moving to a revenue-based model,” he says.

“Data control has also been a sticking point in the past – we’re coming out of it now, and people moving data centres into the UK has helped – and it’s also a new skill set for councils to manage integration to the cloud. That change costs money and takes capacity.”

“It feels like I arrived at just right time”

Elsewhere on Connell’s to-do list is to make better use of his 180-strong team on a tight budget – it was £18m last year and will be around £16m in 2017 – which he says was “more challenging” than he had expected.

This will be particularly important when it comes to a major focus of transformation in coming years: the integration of health and social care, which Connell, in common with most IT leaders, expects to take up a lot of time and resource.

However, he is full of praise for his team, saying they “have the capacity to do it all, we just need to make sure they have all the right skills and are focused on high-value work, like doing new websites and self-service portal design, not password resets”.

Connell adds that – after a fairly long time on an interim arrangement after his predecessor as CIO Tom Baker left in January 2014 – the council was “crying out” for strong tech leadership

“It feels like I arrived at just right time in an organisation that is embracing change and recognises that it’s got to be IT enabled change.”


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