by Edward Qualtrough

Newham and Havering CIO Geoff Connell interview – Connecting local government

Aug 04, 2015
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Newham Borough Council has made £116 million in savings over the past four years, and its CIO Geoff Connell said in the months before the general election that it had another £60 million to make over the next four – a figure which now stands at £50 million next year rising to £91 million a year from 2019.

“We need to reduce our spending by 35% while delivering more,” Connell said before Prime Minister David Cameron returned to 10 Downing Street with a Conservative majority government and a pledge to reduce government spending by £13 billion as part of its planned £30 billion fiscal consolidation.

Indeed, two weeks after the election, Tory council leaders across England and Wales warned Chancellor George Osborne that another round of funding cuts would devastate local services and harm the most vulnerable in society.

“The challenge isn’t whether we can maintain the spending reductions, it’s a challenge of the demographics and an ageing community,” Connell explains.

“We’re having to adopt new business modes and operating models. The cuts are more savage in an area like Newham, with a poorer population, and the grants were the easiest thing for the coalition to cut – so we’ve had to be pretty dramatic in the way we changed things.”

He is, however, optimistic that technology can be the enabler underpinning the transformation of local government, offering public bodies a new way of working and of delivering services.

“The challenges of local government are first and foremost austerity, and how you cope with the cuts,” he says. “The upside is that people cannot afford to do what they’ve always done in the past; they have to make changes.

“And when change comes, technology is generally the enabler. So the biggest challenge for me as an individual is how do you balance reducing revenue costs, while reducing the overheads, and retaining the capacity to help the business change? That’s the backdrop – having to innovate, while being told to not take any risks. That’s the dichotomy we find ourselves in. We need to innovate, but that means challenging the whole operating model.”

Shared services

Some of the biggest savings in East London have come through a shared services arrangement between Newham and the nearby borough of Havering. Connell has been at the forefront of the project, informally taking on the CIO role in Havering in 2009 and starting officially in 2010. The arrangement, according to Connell, has produced “millions of pounds of savings a year through joint working as well as pooling of increasing scarce skilled staffing resources, and sharing of best practice.”

A 2013 study of 27 anonymous public sector and local government CIOs revealed their frustrations on instigating joint-procurement and shared services arrangements. However, with a view over both estates, and able to espouse the benefits to both organisations, Connell has been able to align the underlying IT structures in Newham and Havering.

When we meet at the Romford-based Havering council offices, he says that merging IT functions has made savings, improved customer engagement and satisfaction in Havering, while Newham has also reaped the benefits of reduced costs with the shared service.

“I reported to two directors in two different boroughs,” Connell explains. “Culturally one was Labour and one Conservative, but back office was not an issue. It’s about enabling the services people need, and they don’t care about sharing a data centre with a neighbouring borough.”

The successful technology merger was then the platform to merge other functions and departments across the authorities. “They thought that if it works in IT, then why not in other services? So we spun up oneSource; 1,300 staff in a shared corporate back office – finance, payroll, procurement, HR, legal, IT and facilities management,” he says of the single organisation for the boroughs.

“It was off the back of the positive experience with ICT, and there are a number of reasons why that’s a good idea. When you merge two organisations, one of the biggest timeline costs and drags can be aligning the technology. But we’ve done that organically, our new build IT was already here when we created a new shared service.”

Just how far could shared services go? As chair of the London CIO Council and Socitm London, Connell understands more than anyone the idiosyncrasies of the capital’s IT departments. “There are 33 London boroughs with 33 different sets of politicians, and then don’t forget some are outsourced,” he says. “So the road map is to find consistency and see where we are trying to do the same thing.”

Mentoring and apprenticeships

A common theme on CIO UK in recent months has been that people and processes are some of the most important areas to get correct for any project to succeed. The technology is the easy bit, they say. It’s incubating the culture that will affect the change leading to successful programme delivery where the CIO’s leadership skills and drive are needed most.

“When I came into Havering – and I wasn’t coming in as if it was a hostile takeover – I realised that mentoring was the only way for me be effective because I was still full-time in Newham,” Connell reveals. “I can’t be in two places at once and I can’t magic up the hours in the day, so I knew what I had to do was develop the promising people at both organisations.

“I didn’t have a mandate to do this forever. That was never the target, so I had to make something that was sustainable. The way to do that was to develop the team, because half the time I’m not going to be there. Empowering them was entirely appropriate because they need to act on my behalf when I’m not there, which is going to be half of the time.

“They needed to understand my objectives and my principles, and my ethos to predict what I would do in that context. I was involved in developing the strategy and road map, and had them shadowing me, so they could do that effectively. I’ve got some good direct reports now because the world moves on, and some of my old reports are CIOs elsewhere.”

Connell sees the people hired by Newham as crucial to the local council transforming itself to better serve the public. He believes the public sector also has an obligation to the community it serves to help the younger generation in their careers. “We’ve been running an apprenticeship scheme many years and it keeps evolving,” he explains. “As a local authority we have a duty to help get kids work experience to get ready for employment.

“Employment is critical in terms of reducing cost of residents to the state, so you have to do everything you can to reduce the costs of all the downstream behaviour. That’s why there’s a big push in online skills; if you can get online, you are more likely to get a job and can buy things cheaper. Being digitally excluded hits the hardest off the most.

“We get kids in on to all sorts of schemes; on a gap year, from schools and university. They come in and get work experience in different areas of the council. It’s such a win-win getting kids in who don’t have work experience, but are inquisitive and have some fresh energy and ideas.

“The bottom line is that we have to grow our own because we can’t bring in top-skilled people from various different areas, and we have a moral obligation to do it. I think it is an exciting place for people to come and learn their trade. I joined in 1988 as a short-term thing because I saw they did good training, and we’re doing some of our own recruitment now which makes a nice change.”

Digital public services

Connell sees a huge opportunity in digitising and reimagining public services and their processes for councils to slash costs and better serve the community as the government’s cuts come in. He agrees with CIO UK columnist Jerry Fishenden that this means more than simply putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

“We used to automate processes, but that just made bad processes a bit less bad,” he explains. “Now it’s about completely redesigning them.”

He says that Newham Council had moved from a situation in 2011 where 67% of the public’s interaction with the borough were done face-to-face, to now just 11%. This represents a drop of enquiries in person from approximately 20,000 a month to around 3,000.

At the council’s local service centres, the ‘cost per transaction’ is about £18 for a face-to-face transaction, but in the tens of pence for a web transaction.

“We’re trying to skip from face-to-face straight to mobile. Politicians are very up for it, it’s about resilience and helping the community to help themselves and making them less dependent on the state,” Connell explains.

The channel shift, with 79% of residential properties registered on the My Newham self-service tool, has so far delivered more than £12 million in savings per annum. Out of hours usage currently stands at 46%, freeing up valuable working hours for council staff.


Of course mobility, both inside the organisation as well as a tool to interact with the public, is having a major impact on the way Newham operates and provides huge opportunities for Connell and the council to drive efficiencies.

One of the successes has been the Love Newham app, which helps with the reporting of environmental issues in the area, whether that’s fly-tipping, graffiti, litter or a stray dog – a kind of Uber for dog poo. Connell says that the app pushes the report through a CRM tool and drops a pin on a map to show the council worker exactly where the issue is. It gets de-duplicated, so only arrives once, gets pinged to the nearest person who can deal with that particular incident, and then routes back through the CRM notifying all the people who reported the incident, while showing a picture of the cleared area.

The new channels have been fully embraced by the people of Newham, with 69% of bulky waste requests and 75% of green waste requests logged on the My Newham website, while 61% of fly-tipping enquiries have been reported through the Love Newham app.

Mobile working has also provided huge improvements in business efficiency, reveals Connell, with a property portfolio consolidation. This saw Newham move from 27 back office buildings to one large corporate headquarters, saving the council £1 million per year, while providing a much better working environment.

The council also supports flexible working, with the predicted horror of the London 2012 Olympics being a major catalyst. Both Connell and the borough believe that as long as the employee has a suitable job and broadband, then telecommuting is not an issue.

“Working from home is not a technology challenge,” he said. “It’s a line management issue and people need to learn to measure by outputs rather than by presenteeism.”

The CIO is most excited about the next explosion of mobile working, and the huge administrative burdens new tools will be able to remove from social workers, for example, and “double their efficiency for home visits”.

“I think the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 is great,” he enthuses. “Finally, a device with the iPad’s usability, and the power of a full-blow laptop. I’m excited because people in the business can quickly get their head around the processes of that mobile technology and it’s a big opportunity for us.”

Enterprise social networking

And ideas for changing the public sector’s way of operating is something that needs to come from all levels of the organisation, according to Connell, who says that challenging processes was something championed from the chief executive downwards. The council needs to hear from frontline staff, who know the processes best, he says.

The council is deploying Microsoft’s enterprise social networking tool Yammer to try and prompt these discussions, and source ideas for reimagining local government processes.

“It takes away some of the layers of the organisation and democratises it,” he explains. “It allows the most senior members of staff at the organisation to be contacted, and lets less senior members of staff have their voices heard. We really want that because they are the ones who can see the inefficiency.” Connell believes that cyber threats pose a danger, but also notes that being able to share information is a powerful tool for local government bodies to work better with each other – and it comes down to a people problem rather than one of technology.

Security and data sharing

In the 2015 CIO 100, some 56% of respondents reported that their organisation had detected a cyber breach within the last year. While they responded overwhelmingly that security had risen up their management agenda as a result, fewer were seeing a corresponding budget increase to deal with the threat – with public sector institutions well represented in this final group.

Connell said that he believes the cyber threat posed a clear and present danger to local government, but also noted that being able to share information openly was a powerful tool for local government bodies to work better with each other – and it fundamentally comes down to a people problem rather than one of technology.

“Information security is one of the biggest threats to local government,” Connell says. “We block more than 90% of all our email, which is either spam or viruses. We have a head of information governance, whose role is to make sure we stay the right side of the information commissioner and exploit the ability to share as much as possible, so we can exploit our information and data.

“In the past people were overly-cautious about sharing information, and that’s how we ended up with Baby P-type situations. The view now is that it’s better to err on the side of sharing a little too much than too little.”

Public sector IT

With almost three decades in public sector IT, Connell, a keen and impressive cyclist, is still driven by the unique offering being a civil servant entails.

“I’ve worked 27 years in public sector IT across lots of different roles, always wanting to be Head of IT,” he says. “When I achieved that I looked at the next job and thought I didn’t want to go up any further, but I did want to go broader and be facilitative across the wider public sector.

“IT is very buoyant in the private sector, but we’ve had 0% pay rises and it’s a tough environment in many respects. It’s hard sometimes to not talk about how we’re doing the next set of savings, but the good news is that IT is seen as the enabler for organisational change. I think most people who work in the public sector, particularly as they get more senior, do so because they believe in it. They want to change people’s lives.

“There are some things we do in public sector IT that really do make a difference – it’s quite fulfilling. We’re not here to put a penny on a share price. It’s to change the lives of local people and it’s clear in a place like Newham.”