‘Now, 65p of every pound we spend is invested back into Manchester’

Manchester City Council’s CIO Bob Brown talks to PublicTechnology about the authority’s transformation agenda and how it is ensuring the money it spends on IT goes back into the city

Credit: Frankie Roberto/CC BY 2.0

When Bob Brown took on the role of chief information officer of Manchester City Council three years ago, the authority “was at a decision point”, he says, and needed to course-correct a failing IT strategy that included several ongoing high-risk projects.

Since then, he has overseen a transformation that has brought with it new people and new technology and, hopefully, a new sense of freedom for a workforce no longer hamstrung by ailing tech and dysfunctional processes. 

But the benefits have also been felt beyond the walls of the Town Hall, and across the wider city. Brown has also overseen a drive to put money back into Manchester, by using suppliers that are based locally or are willing to invest in the city.

“It used to be 35p of every pound, but now it is 65p of every pound [we spend] is invested back into Manchester,” he says.

Considering that Brown’s ICT function has a capital budget of £14.2m for the current fiscal year, those extra 30ps will add up to a not-insignificant sum of money for Mancunian businesses.

Every member of staff has the equipment they need to be able to do their job. A full mobile worker needs something that has got battery life, while a warehouse operative or someone that cuts grass needs a ruggedised version

But, back in early 2015, the incoming CIO had to address some more immediate concerns.

“There were some very risky projects, with a requirement for us to put in some real rigour and get those delivered in an appropriate way,” Brown says. “There were a whole series of operational dependencies that were just waiting for the IT bit. In one instance, there was a project to move a datacentre from one location to another that had taken a number of years – and was delaying the building of a school.”

The internal environment also needed some attention. 

New technology and new blood were both required, Brown says, as was a new lease of life for existing IT staff whose talents were being poorly served.

“The [IT support] environment of 2015 was one that people only used in an emergency,” he says. “It had poor leadership and a real lack of clarity of purpose. We had a function with great people that were not particularly well led or directed.”

The technology team Brown has assembled since then is “fundamentally designed to have an enabling function to support our business”, he says. 

“We are helping to support a business strategy and are able to interpret business knowledge and convert that back into a technology world,” Brown adds.

New channels for accessing IT support have been introduced, while others have been improved. One of the most notable changes has been the introduction of new consumer-style support stations at the council offices that are staffed by IT experts.

Amount of every pound spent by Manchester City Council’s IT function that now goes back into the city

Amount of telephone calls made to the council’s IT support team each year

Capital budget for ICT for the 2018/19 year

Amount of the workforce trained on the authority’s new Google email platform, who then took on the responsibility of educating their colleagues

Know IT Alls
Name for the council IT experts who provide a technology support station similar in style to Apple’s Genius Bars 

“Apple have the Genius Bars – we have the Know IT Alls. We have a team here, and one that we have taken on the road, as we have 300-plus locations that our colleagues work from,” Brown says. “You can ring us – we take 70,000 calls a year. And you can talk to us over video. But you can always walk up and talk to us, and come and have an experience. We are driven from a customer-service perspective, and we measure that.”

The biggest priority of the IT function should be to help the council’s 7,000 staff and 94 councillors in providing services to Manchester’s citizens, Brown says. He cites the use of videoconferencing as a good exemplar of this. The technology has allowed councillors to conduct virtual surgeries with residents of their wards who might find it difficult to travel, while staff based outside of the council headquarters can have necessary meetings with colleagues without “having to traipse into town, and spend £15 parking for 20 minutes”.

The rollout of mobile devices and the infrastructure to support them has also helped social-work professionals obtain the “real-time information that they may need access to”.

Capital ideas
Although Manchester, in common with all local authorities, is coping with the impact of austerity, the authority still has “a significant capital budget that we are investing” in key transformational projects, Brown says.

A recent council report reveals that the capital budget for ICT is set at £14.2m for the 2018/19 year, followed by £13m in 2019/20 and £15.3m in 2020/21.

The first order of business is ensuring that “core technology is no later than one version behind” the latest release – or ideally completely up to date, Brown says.

Beyond this, the authority is investing in technologies that are designed to help staff better perform their duties. 

“Where we have introduced technology, it is not about headcount reduction. It is about giving people time back to do their jobs,” Brown says. “This organisation now is performing really well from a technology point of view, and has got a very clear transformation plan that I have laid out for the next few years.”

One of the transformation projects that was undertaken in 2017 was the deployment of a new email platform. 

“We have done that very, very successfully, and that is creating opportunities for employees to be able to work in new ways, in a more dynamic and remote-access way,” Brown says.

The project formed part of the IT unit’s reinvestment in the city’s economy, as it chose to deploy the Google technology put forward by Manchester-based SME specialist Cloud Technology Solutions (CTS).

“What we knew was that the email platform… was an out-of-date technology, and it certainly was not supporting new ways of working,” the CIO adds. “We looked at the options that were out there through a procurement and tender exercise, and we were able to identify that either an Office 365 or a Google platform would provide the functionality we needed. The price helped to drive our ultimate decision.”

Following the rollout, the council brought its employees up to speed on the new technology by asking CTS to train 10% of the workforce, who then took responsibility for helping educate their colleagues. 

Its relationship with the Mancunian cloud firm and other trusted technology partners helps the council ensure it keeps up with developments in the technology world.

“I have not got an R&D function… but we keep a very close eye on what is going on in the industry; we are not a reactionary environment, we are quite proactive with what we do,” Brown says.

One recent proactive change was the decision to move away from BlackBerry and work with EE and Samsung to kit staff out with new smartphones and tablets. Workers have been equipped with devices based on the requirements of their job, Brown says.

You can ring us, and you can talk to us over video. But you can always walk up and talk to us, and come and have an experience. We are driven from a customer-service perspective

“We have an end-user device policy, and every member of staff has the equipment they need to be able to do their job,” Brown says. “We have devices [tailored] to an individual’s profile. You may be working in the contact centre, then you leave and go home. But a full mobile worker needs something that has got battery life, while a warehouse operative or someone that cuts grass needs a ruggedised version. We have a great relationship with EE and Samsung – as a result of every connection I give EE, money goes into my hardware fund.”

The future
Outside of core hardware and software tune-ups, the council is exploring how assisted-living technology could play a role in social care, particularly in helping people live more independently.

“We are starting to look at ways of [using technology] in social housing, where we know people would be more comfortable in their own environment. Those things can easily be put in place,” Brown says.

The authority is also one of 21 organisations from the public, private, and third sectors that are signed up as partners of Manchester’s CityVerve smart-city project. In late 2015 the scheme received £10m in funding from the government and Innovate UK to explore how internet of things technologies could play a role in improving services for citizens.

“I think of it as proving ground in terms of what can be done and what already is… to prove that smart tech can support a smart-city agenda, and a smart-region agenda,” the CIO says. “It is not quite yet at the point of enormous [rollouts], but it is demonstrating the value that can be achieved through technology in the wider sense.”

The value of technology has been made clear to leaders at the Town Hall (pictured left), according to Brown, as is evidenced by the fact that IT is now represented on Manchester City Council’s senior-management team.

“In the arena of local authority CIOs in Greater Manchester, I am the only IT leader that reports directly into the chief executive, and that has a seat at the top table,” he says. “What you find in almost all local authorities is IT is below the waterline. It is not visible and is under a finance lead, or an HR lead. At Manchester City Council, because they tried all those options and realised that they needed good technologists.”

Brown adds: “I am an individual that is highly motivated and driven by trying to do the right thing. I am a seasoned technology professional, and my desire is to always leave a hugely positive legacy. That legacy is not just about providing tech, it is about leaving a legacy that is sustainable for the future.”

Sam Trendall

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