Applications > Business Applications

A tale of two councils

Charlotte Jee Published 10 September 2013

Rob Miller, CIO for Kingston and Sutton councils' recently-created shared ICT service, talks about moving local government towards using mobile technology and how he's laying the groundwork for a 'Cloud First' policy for the two councils


Rob Miller is something of a trailblazer: a chief information officer (CIO) reporting to more than one council. As head of Kingston and Sutton's shared ICT service, Miller is responsible for the first fully integrated ICT venture between two councils in London.

It's a role that could become more common, with the tri-boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea imminently due to appoint a CIO to lead a single ICT service across all three authorities.

And, as Miller explains, the shared service could expand to deliver services beyond the two councils, as "getting this right for Kingston and Sutton, which both have a real need for a modern, efficient and agile IT service, should put us in a position where we have an offer which will be attractive and scalable for other partners".

However, for the time being he has his work sufficiently cut out with the initial task of getting the shared service up and running, which he says is "very ambitious, as it's a fully integrated service, not just a veneer of service management, bringing two councils' ICT functions together into a single team."

The venture was launched in May 2013 and will have approximately 100 staff, saving the councils £4m over the next four years, but it's still in the early stages of getting underway, according to Miller.

He says, "As there are two councils, we can pick the best practice from each part, or start from scratch where that's more appropriate. But we don't have a 'greenfield' site in terms of infrastructure; there are lots of challenges and processes to undertake to bring us up to a modern environment. There is plenty of risk management and reactive work involved, but it feels quite promising.

"For me, the key thing is that it has been set up so that the relationships are right. I report to both councils, which means I'm involved in the conversations with senior leaders in both authorities in a way you might not be in a more 'service-provider' based model. That means I'm speaking directly to the chief executives and directors in both councils, and as we're in the early stages of shaping our business direction, it's really important to have those conversations. People need to move very quickly, and we don't want to miss the opportunity to help them achieve the right results."

Coming together to invest to save

A key reason for the shared service, according to Miller, was a pressing need for investment in both councils. He explains that much of his initial work is focused on "questions of safely migrating off from legacy infrastructure".

He adds, "We have the legacy of the current stack, so for example we still need to complete work to migrate off Windows XP, and we also have the legacy of different systems for equivalent services in Kingston and Sutton. One thing I have to do is to bring the technology up to scratch but also look at how we do business and align the way we use IT to make that as effective as possible.

"Both councils have legacy architecture that needs investment. The primary driver around the shared service is the investment the councils need to make come what may, and that's better done together than separately. At the moment I'm focusing on getting it right with the two organisations, but with a mind to being able to offer services more widely in the future."

Lessons from Lambeth

Miller explains that the lessons he learned during the seven years he spent as assistant director of business systems at Lambeth Council have helped in his new role, particularly the work to transform the authority into a 'cooperative council'.

He says the cooperative council work "was far-reaching in terms of looking at how the council can work more closely with the community, with mutuals and different ventures for delivering services at the core of that vision. As they [Lambeth] have been working out how to sustain economies of scale but also harness the benefits of community involvement, we had to have a lot of conversations about our business model and how to make it work successfully.

"Here they have a great track record of successfully implementing new models for delivering local services - for example Kingston is currently working with Richmond to create a joint venture to deliver children's services. My time at Lambeth was really helpful in working through some of the challenges which that will present."

Cloud First

Another useful piece of experience from Miller's time at Lambeth is around using G-Cloud, as he was in charge of a team that made a number of purchases via the framework, for example for Drupal expertise and mobile device management. Miller indicates he's keen to follow central government in setting up a 'Cloud First' policy.

He says, "G-Cloud is the first place we will look for services. The categories cover many areas of importance to us- for example at the moment we're working on mobility and purchasing mobile device management as a service- we will use G-Cloud for that. It's not always the right option of course, but it's the first place we'll look.

"We're still building momentum. The broad strategy for our technology platform is to migrate to a private cloud model initially. The legacy is quite complicated, so it would be expensive to just migrate straight to public cloud. Our current focus is to modernise, rationalise and consolidate on an internal platform, readying us to take advantage of public cloud offerings in the future. But where public cloud can meet our needs now, we'll use that."

Building for BYOD

Miller says he is looking to enable Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), not just as a money-saving exercise but also as a way to support flexible working.

He says, "BYOD is an area I'm really interested in - I believe it's very important and I don't think we can ignore it. This is partly because local authorities have so much less money, because of the way councils are funded it varies by authority, but it's still very dramatic across the board. And it's also because of the rate at which technology is changing. Look at how ubiquitous the iPhone is, yet it's only six years old and has defined a whole category of devices. That's a challenge for us as traditionally councils work to a fairly rigid four or five year refresh cycle. We also need to open ourselves up to working more closely with a wider range of partnerships - including voluntary groups. It's really important that ICT doesn't become a barrier to that.

"But at the same time, we also need to work with a range of other partners- the NHS and the police for example- who we can connect with via the PSN, and whose security requirements mean that we need to work within more rigid constraints. Our challenge will be to balance the two, and design the right architecture to make this work."

Going mobile

When asked what he's hoping to spend money on as part of the 'invest to save' strategy, Miller is unequivocal in identifying mobile technology as a vital area to keep an eye on for the future.

He says, "I think how we make mobile technology work for us is a really interesting area. The way things have evolved in the consumer sphere is amazing and offers huge potential for us. There are organisations in the commercial sphere such as Bechtel who have done some very clever work taking a complicated and expensive legacy IT stack and moved that into mobile. The key thing is to not just move old apps into mobile while retaining the old silos, you've got to use the technology to change things, and open up the APIs.

"There are several councils across London, working through a pan-London project led by Camden, who are getting involved in working together on mobile technology. Not only can we use our collective weight to change relationships with suppliers, we can also get them to open up our internal architecture. That will be a very exciting development."

However, we'll have to wait some time before further news on that front. As Miller says, "All this stuff is a year down the line for us at the moment. There's a lot of core IT infrastructure work we have to do first!"

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