by Mark Chillingworth

Interview: The CIO of Nottingham, City Council

Jul 23, 20148 mins
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

Evil tax collecting Sheriffs, bands of merry men protecting the poor, outlaws or heroes, Nottingham is, of course, famous for the legend of Robin Hood. Similarly loaded language has been used to describe the public sector for the past 30 years. In cities such as Nottingham, the role of the public sector has had to change because the communities it serves shift and adapt. It’s evolved from market town to the global home of manufacturing clean bicycles, to the home of cigarettes making to today an important conurbation for retailers (Boots HQ), financial services, science and new media. Nottingham is also a top six tourist destination for the UK, thanks to the thievery of Robin Hood.

Mark Gannon is CIO and director of customer access at Nottingham City Council. The city has marked itself out in recent years for its development of infrastructure, in 2011 it was named Transport City of the Year for its extensive tram and bus network, and its two major universities; all of which plays an important role in enticing major businesses such as Capital One, the credit card service, into the city.

“We’ve two world-class universities and this city is also where the MRI scanner and Nurofen were invented,” Gannon says. “New media is growing steadily, too, so we’ve aspirations around digital businesses that have led to the implementation of an ultraband research and development centre. Nottingham has modern aspirations, but still plenty of old-fashioned values. We must have a business culture that takes risks.”

Gannon cites a recently introduced citywide workplace car-parking levy scheme as an example of this approach. “It was a risky decision and, initially, wasn’t very popular. I’m not here to be Mr Popular; you have to do things that are right for the organisation. The tiers of government aren’t sustainable. There will have to be fewer of them as there’s so much duplication of effort. That’s when the value gets missed.”

At present, Nottingham City Council has 7,000 staff and owns significant parts of the city’s public transport network. “Its role is leading the city through service delivery and investment into regeneration. It’s about how we can lead the city to get more bang for its buck. We aren’t London, but we can be at the heart of the UK thanks to our transport links. We see our role as city advocates, so that people who live here will strive for more.”

Gannon’s had to modernise, too. “We had too many IT manager levels, so we’ve shrunk those so I could bring in new roles which work directly with business partners to align with our needs. It’s helped us become the ‘go-to’ department.

“I want my team to be out with the organisation 60 percent of the time, and I also want them to be advocates.

“How do we make IT real for people and be more proactive? I’ve a dedicated communications officer to tell people what the benefits of IT are,” he explains.

“It’s a necessity to work with other organisations. Our relationships are growing with Leicester and Derby City Councils,” he says, explaining that the two cities face similar demands and opportunities as Nottingham.

“It’s tough. There’s no way all these organisations can survive, so I see a move to a single public sector,” Gannon says. Nottingham plans to cut its expenditure by 70 percent over the next three years.

“We’ve done some sharp stuff around getting the volume from vendors and really looked at the clauses in contracts. For the last couple of years, every area of the organisation has had to cut targets, but it’s important to collaborate. So now the approach is to look at what the overall savings will be and what big-ticket saves will really change the organisation. There will be no growth in IT, but there will be investment in retooling and reducing complexity,” he explains.

Digital platform

Gannon wears two hats at Nottingham – as CIO and head of customer access, which, as in every area of government and commerce, is increasingly about digital access. In the past year, Gannon’s team has began managing the city’s website.

“The old website was hard to navigate, so I took control of the web team and have aligned them to the customer access programme. We set some clear principals by engaging with a group of local citizens in workshops, which was really interesting. Our ambition was to get a better Socitm accessibility rating, which we did by reducing the size of the original website from 5,000 to 500 pages while using heat maps and building in lots of feedback,” Gannon explains.

He’s also brought app development in-house as part of a move to introduce demand management across the organisation, which was new to Nottingham City Council. “If you align digital to communications, it becomes messaging. But really, digital is about process re-engineering, and that’s not the bag of marketing and communications. Look at mobile, it’s spread widely around the organisation,” he says.

Gannon gestures around the atrium and, sure enough, we’re completely surrounded by council workers using iPads, Kindles and mobile phones. “Mobile is how we interact with citizens, and it’s great as it’s choking off the problem of digital inclusion,” he says. Gannon believes digital inclusion is reaching a stage where it’s less about which citizens have access to the web and more about the processes of the organisation, which is where his customer-access hat comes in handy. “Digital by default is about quality of service,” he says. “Knowing how many project days and deciding on the business priorities makes everyone think about resources.”

Gannon and his team have mapped all the systems Nottingham has, to focus how jobs are allocated. A further benefit has been that his team has greater mobility across the organisation and is working very closely with colleagues.

“We often get asked for a permanent secondment from IT, which another department pays for,” he explains.

As we sit in the modern headquarters of the council, formerly home to a major financial services provider, Gannon’s team has staff working in adult social care, revenue and benefits teams. With close involvement in many projects and a decreasing budget, he operates a revenue reserve for major business change.

“We top it up every year with contributions from every department so that we have ongoing funds to support our business projects. The new social care system is one such programme, so it’s funded by the revenue reserve.

“The reserve comes under a lot of pressure, so I’ve had to be strict where we use it. It’s about investing to save. We’re catching up, and we’ll need to migrate our Windows server environment in a year and a half,” he says.

Customer access

Gannon tells me that the CEO was keen he moved away from the day-to-day IT, and his director of customer access role is all about transforming the company and going from good to great.

“It’s about putting citizens at the heart of what we do. They can choose whether they come to us or to a commercial supplier for business waste removal or leisure services. But there’s a real need to be customer focused so that they feel like first-class customers,” he says. “We have to create as well as cut.

“I had a year and a half to get IT up to speed after a lot of under investment, so I had to get the day-to-day up and running well by moving us to Windows 7 and using less Citrix, other than for remote access. We were under pressure to move into these new headquarters, so we needed to make decisions quickly. We’re also looking at how to put more of our workflow into the cloud.”

Part of the IT improvement was to do with the relationships his team had with their peers across the organisation.

“It’s important to raise the profile of IT. In local government, it’s often seen as not being particularly sexy. Bringing in business partner roles was important so that IT was able to set the agenda. I’m no techie, but you have to know what technology can do.

You can lead an IT organisation without being the ‘IT guy’.”

So what exactly appeals to him about the public sector? “It’s the sheer variety and every day really is different,” he replies. “I’m not one for doing the same thing over and over again. For me, it’s about the ability to change organisations to benefit others.”

Outside work, Gannon is passionate about football, especially Aston Villa.

Nottingham City Council is based in an über-modern building opposite the city rail station. You could argue it’s bland and overly corporate; you could also say it’s modern, efficient and functional.

Across the road, construction workers are busy extending Nottingham’s tram network. This is a city and community to keep an eye on with a more progressive attitude than London. Could Nottingham once again steal from the rich and foolish to benefit those in real need?


Director of Customer Access and CIO Nottingham City Council April 2014 – Present

Director for Information and Technology (Chief Information Officer) Nottingham City Council July 2011 – March 2014

Transformation and Strategic Partnerships Manager Rotherham Borough Council August 2007 – June 2011

Corporate e-Government and ICT Client Manager Middlesbrough Council 2003 – 2007

Strategy Development Officer Hartlepool Council 2003 – 2003

‘Getting London Moving’ Project Manager London Councils 2001 – 2003

‘Involve’ Project Manager Volunteering England 1998 – 2001