by Mark Chillingworth

Oxford County Council CIO describes how government IT leaders co-operate and achieve

May 09, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

The first CIO meeting with Stephan Conaway, head of ICT for Oxfordshire County Council was delayed due to the heavy snow fallsthe UK experienced this winter. That same snow demonstrated the value of Oxford’s recent strategy of delivering e-learning and secure service management to the 85,000 pupils and 15,000 education staff across the county. Conaway, a quietly spoken American, described how he got the entire county to work with the County Council IT division to ensure pupils, schools and parents received county-wide e-learning.

One of the challenges for government CIOs in recent years has been connecting together the wide variety of e-government initiatives that have been launched over the last decade.  Government Connect was an initiative to get the 375 local authorities connected to central government on a trusted network. Alongside this, various education ministers have been driving e-learning into schools and pupils’ laptops. For Stephan Conaway and his peers, making these two projects work in tandem has been just the sort of challenge a CIO enjoys.

At the core of this challenge is identity management as parents, pupils and teachers interact with e-learning and institutions via email and learning zones. “There are lots of logins to control, so we wanted a single login for a school to all the systems, for example,” Conaway says. Schools and local authorities are mandatory expected to provide parent access to primary school e-learning platforms by 2012. “The platform is a vehicle for parental engagement,” he explains.

Oxfordshire decided to approach the schools in its beautiful county with the vision of working more efficiently as a single unit, rather than each school meeting its e-learning and identity management targets individually. A specification was created for providing access to the virtual learning environment (VLE), information management system for pupil data, learning resources and timetable; email and single sign-on ID management was developed in a consultative approach with the schools and with the supplier vendors. “It is not easier for schools to work alone. We offered a service for a tiny cost to their independence,” Conaway says of how his department has matured into an IT service provider.

With specifications and collaboration agreed, Conaway’s next challenge was integrating all this with the IBM Tivoli the council used. Like many CIOs, Conaway looked to the technology partners he already used to see if they could meet his new challenge. Pirean, a systems integrator with a heritage in financial services systems management framework stepped in with its Compliance One system, providing identity, access and auditing systems with single sign-on to the council’s 300 individual databases. This simplifies access control for administrators and improves access to parents keen to see how their children are progressing with curriculum.

“The biggest challenge came from the variety of vendors used by schools, so the vendors needed to refigure how to be within the new framework,” Conaway says.

“The worlds of education and banking may appear to be quite different. However, the needs of managers and staff actually mirror the relationship between teachers and pupils when it comes to providing access to applications, whether that’s a brokerage system or e-learning platform,” says Mike Cartright, CTO for Pirean.

Heavy snow in December and January proved to be testing conditions for the system, which was finalising its roll out as CIO visited the ICT offices on Oxford’s famed Cornmarket Street. “The snow certainly justified it. The school used the platform to update parents and keep the pupils learning,” Conaway says, recounting one school telling him: “Things are very different from 30 years ago, we can maintain contact, and it is a great level of reassurance for parent.”

Snow may be a visible example of how schools, parents and pupils can connect and share information securely, but Conaway explains that modern education makes a secure e-learning platform vital for a county. In recent years certain schools have become specialists in subjects, whether its music, languages, arts or sport. As a result pupils no longer remain on one secondary school site for the entire week of lessons, but instead may move around the county to gain access to better resources at other facilities. Conaway explains that one of the drivers of the e-learning and Government Connect agenda was to ensure parents can see how their kids are doing in multiple schools. “For a parent, we want them to go to the one place for all the information they need.” For pupils it also means essentially their school is where they are, for example pupils have been able to remain in contact with the curriculum whilst in hospital if they require treatment.

Conaway has been with Oxford County Council for eight years following a career largely in media and publishing. Under his leadership IT at the council has become a service provider not only to the council, but also has assisted the county’s schools in meeting their educational agenda with support from broadband and a selection of shared ICT services. “It is good for us as it gives both a large footprint and it improves the county.” This belief has enabled him to motivate his IT team of 155. “The staff get involved and enjoy it as everyone is a stakeholder as they have children at the schools.”

Conaway describes being a local authority CIO as differing from the private sector in that the changes you make in IT have to be considered more in the light of “changes to human behaviour” more. “A lot of people in the IT and financial world don’t take that into effect.” He cites an example at Oxford, a Microsoft desktop applications user where open-source suite OpenOffice was considered as a replacement as it could deliver savings close to quarter of a million pounds, “but take into account the training for such a transformation we end up making a loss”.

“I was looking around for something and a vendor knew Oxford were looking for a CIO,” he says of how he came to lead IT in the city of dreaming spires. He joined the council in 2002 following two years at consumer magazine publisher Emap where he was CTO as the company digitised before “the new FD decided there was no future in electronic publishing, so he shut us down.” He left a year later when the company realised they had lost their place in web publishing. He had joined Emap from the Financial Times, where he had been IT Director, his second newspaper after having been Director of Operations for the recently sold Independent. Conaway was with The Independent for eight years including the paper’s birth. He describes his media career as specialising in using IT to improve production and distribution of newsprint products.

Family led him to stay at Oxford, a job he originally anticipated would cover a two-year stint, and remains in. Having delivered secure e-learning and connectivity, like all public sector CIOs he knows the challenge now will be about efficiencies in government operations. The CIO’s role, he says, will be about, “asking what is really possible” from IT.