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It’s a hot day, one of the rare few in London, when I meet David Wilde, the Essex County Council’s CIO, for a round of coffees and a chat to discuss how he and his team are making a difference to the people of Essex and helping the county government get through turbulent times.
The global recession changed the world, and the Essex County Council felt one of the hammer blows in October 2010, when the U.K. government announced its austerity program. The ECC’s budget, like every county council’s budget, was decimated, threatening the viability of almost every service, from policing to welfare, that the county council delivered to the county's 1.4 million residents.
Five years on and £500 million in savings later, the ECC’s annual budget of £2.2 billion is still the second largest in the U.K., but the cuts are by no means over. By 2018, they will have to find another £185 million of additional savings, but in all likelihood they will still have a £100 million social care funding gap.
One of their most important duties is to provide high-quality, compassionate care for vulnerable elderly individuals. But as budgets continue to fall, this is one service that, without the right intervention, could have easily ended in the face of an endless cycle of decline. Driving the cost of residential care down can only go so far, so something else needed to happen. One answer is to become a property investor.
The council had a dilemma. On the one hand, their residential care costs were rising as the existing private and social housing stock for supported living could not meet demand, while on the other hand they were faced with an increasingly aging population who, more often than not, want to be cared for in their own homes. Both sides of the coin needed investment and resources that were becoming increasingly scarce.
Against the backdrop of many commercial companies' apparent inability to think outside the box, the council’s intervention and subsequent vision, supported by Wilde and a diverse team from across the organization, produced a step change in the way that the elderly will be cared for and the way in which secondary care will be delivered across the county. Technology is the enabler, but the real challenge will be the execution.
The vision is to build the best that today’s connected home and telehealth technologies have to offer into the fabric of 2,500 new homes. In today’s market, it costs the council between £600 and £800 per week to provide individual care, and retrofitting these new technologies into older housing stock costs at least £6,000 per installation. By incorporating these technologies into new houses when they’re built, however, the cost falls to £2,500 and £50 per week in monitoring.
For the council, the ability to keep elderly people in their homes for an additional nine years is the real win, but with a 120% reduction in costs and a guaranteed 10% return on their investment (which will reduce their borrowing needs), it’s fair to say it’s a win-win. In these austere times, that is a rare thing.
As for the future, Wilde wants to see closer integration between housing, social care, healthcare and technology to provide greater “community resilience.” As is all too often the case during austere times, there comes a point where councils have to have frank conversations with members of the public about the need to ween them off of government-funded support and move them onto a privately run replacement service.
In a world full of Chinese walls and intellectual property contracts, Essex is sharing the insights from the initiative and extending the service to the county’s local authorities, charities and community representatives so they can tailor them for their own devices.
Essex is 73% rural and 27% urban. And while the majority of people are concentrated within its urban centers, it’s still the council's responsibility to provide the same continuity and quality of services to the rest of the county. Again technology is enabling new, faster ways to deliver and streamline services. An example of this is Essex’s “Connected Journey” initiative where Wilde and his team are working with Visteon, a Ford spinoff, to design more intelligent multimodal journey planners that draw on a number of information sources, from Twitter through to official Highways Agency feeds, to help commuters optimize their journeys, avoid delays and arrive on time.
If you think that this is simply a sensible, innovative initiative though, you’re evidently still underestimating Wilde’s love for emerging technology and his focus on long-term outcomes. With both eyes on the road and his hands firmly on the wheel, he already has his eye on how he and his team could improve the model to deliver even better travel experiences and game-changing reductions in traffic and infrastructure costs when driverless cars, trucks and buses begin hitting the roads.
When we turn to the topic of suppliers, much of what I hear is what I hear all too often: There’s the good and the bad, and then there’s business as usual.
By far and away, it appears that Dell is Wilde’s preferred supplier. The company provides the majority of the council's IT infrastructure. Unlike Microsoft, which often seems schizophrenic in its approach, Dell listens. The company's representatives interpret Wilde’s needs and work with him and his team and put his objectives before their own.
Other vendors are at the other extreme, Wilde says, citing Google, Amazon Web Services and Salesforce, to name but three, all of which arguably should know better. He reports that Google somewhat arrogantly proclaims that it knows the county council marketplace like the back of its hand. Meanwhile, AWS’s sales teams, despite the fact that the adoption of public cloud services by organizations in highly regulated industries looks like a rounding error, continue to push the AWS cloud as a safe harbor for public-sector data. And while the jury’s still out about that, it’s Wilde who would go to jail if county data was compromised in a public cloud. Then there’s Salesforce, which, Wilde says, seems to miss the point of the customer experience, telling him and his team that it can retrofit all of the council's services into its system -- sure, retrofitting your services into a supplier's product sounds like fun, but in reality many technology staffers would rather stick their heads down the toilet.
Wilde says smaller vendors are hungry and more interesting, something that I hear all the time, and the systems integrators and telco’s are fat, still pushing high-margin products while still thinking that offshoring is the answer to everything and at the same time not realizing that it’s that very approach that, in this new age of on-demand, is killing them.
The cloud and big data. If those terms are on the marketing collateral you’re about to email to Wilde and his team after your cold call, then stop, get up from your chair and smack your head against the wall. Time and time again, from CIOs in every size company and in every industry, I hear the same response: The cloud is old hat and big data is yesterday’s news. Cloud computing is simply a delivery model for IT, and having a conversation about big data is meaningless if you aren’t talking about innovative outcomes. So vehement have customers' reactions to these two topics become that I’ve heard entire roundtables of CIOs say they will lynch the next salesperson who comes in and mentions them. You have been warned.
01100101 the digital county
The private sector has made no bones about announcing huge investments in “digital,” but in truth, and even though the public sector is often perceived as being technology laggards not leaders, it was the U.K. public sector that in 1995 tried to centralize its core services in a single government portal.
The nameless forerunner to .gov.uk was funded from the cabinet offices’ budget, had more than 4 million hits per month, and was so successful that U.S. President Bill Clinton invited the team to Washington to discuss it and open.gov (the U.S. version) eventually was formed.
The ECC is now “digital by default” but as many of us know “being digital” is all well and good if you can access the new digital services at an appropriate speed. As anyone who lives in the countryside will tell you, online services are only useful if you can connect to them, and I for one should know better than most people. While I work in London, I live in the middle of a farming community sucking down broadband at less than 1MB while my phone flicks between one bar of signal and Edge and GPRS. YouTube has to buffer, downloading Apple’s OS X updates take days, and I’m not going to be a Netflix customer anytime soon.
If I lived in Essex, though, I wouldn’t have that problem. Wilde, like many other industry leaders, knows that if you want to create new jobs, realize the benefits that digital offers or use digital as your preferred tool to innovate new services, then super fast countywide broadband is a must, and that’s just what the Next Generation Access program, which Wilde is in charge of, is delivering. Costing £52 million, it’s helping to connect over 120,000 premises (giving 95% coverage) to super fast broadband. Network provision across the county council has been increased tenfold and Wilde’s Next Generation Network (NGN) program has helped converge voice, video, wired and wireless technologies, while reducing costs by nearly 20%.
The provision of super fast broadband, however, isn’t just about helping people watch the latest installment of Game of Thrones. It’s much more than that. Government studies in the U.K. and abroad have shown time and time again that companies that have access to modern network infrastructure outperform their rivals, in revenue terms, by up to 30%. It’s no wonder therefore that it’s one of the key criteria that companies use to evaluate the ROI for new investments, and Wilde knows this all too well. Again, ever the long-term strategist, he’s focused on using the initiative to drive growth and jobs, and it’s already paying off, attracting new businesses into the county and helping bring millions of dollars' worth of Chinese investment for Chelmsford's Medical Technology Accelerator. If you never thought you’d seeing Chinese dragons dancing down Chelmsford high street, you might want to think again.
It’s all related
“Work is a thing you do, not a place you go,” Wilde says. And therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the past three years he and his team have aggressively taken steps to support telecommuting. By providing staff with the tools and training they needed to work from home, the council has seen productivity go off the charts, particularly on Fridays when the desks are empty and 2,000 concurrent users slam the system. Without the right super fast broadband infrastructure, though, the benefits from the initiative would have been diluted.
Driverless vehicles, telehealth, connected homes, connected journeys and innovation accelerators. No one can say that the ECC is a technology laggard. In fact, Wilde and his team put many private-sector organizations to shame. By my reckoning, it’s time that some of those companies start to look over the fence and think seriously about following the public sector's lead and take their hats off to the Essex County Council, Wilde, his colleagues and the teams doing so much to make this real.
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