by CIO and the CSC Global CIO Survey

CIO Q&A with Steve Townsend, Transport for London CIO

Dec 23, 20145 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

London is huge, with more than 8.4 million residents within its nearly 660 square miles. With an annual budget of some £10.9 billion and more than 27,000 full-time employees, TfL is responsible for the daily operation of London’s entire public-transport network, which includes the city’s buses, the London Underground network, Docklands Light Railway, London Overground, Barclays Cycle Hire, Tramlink and five percent of the city’s road network. Leading TfL’s IT team for the last two and half years is Steve Townsend.

What are some of your top challenges?

We’re looking at back-office processes around our ERP solutions. How can we get the organisation to think differently about working practices to drive greater collaboration between silos or pillars of activity, such as HR, finance and customer relationships? What layers of technologies do we need to support it? For that, we have a program called Run Better, and it’s really gathering momentum.

We’re also looking at what we do with data. People would say big data is necessary for what we’re doing. I would say it’s more about smarter data. That is, what have we got? How can we deliver it to make people think differently? How can they do their jobs differently?

Analytics help us, too. What’s happening with transport generally around London? Where are the flows? Where are the bottlenecks? Also, we want to make that information available not just to those people who control it, but also to the people who have to think about it.

Productivity is important. So we’re looking at how we utilize some of the data assets we collect from people who use our services around London — whether that’s a bus, taxi, riverboat, traditional railway overground or underground, Docklands Light Railway, or even a cable car across the Thames.

A long list. How do you manage it all?

It used to be that we’d do a project, and then we’d refresh it every five years. But since I’ve been in the chair, we’ve taken a different approach. Now we’re constantly refreshing and changing the way we deliver data to people. So, as opposed to completing a project and then stopping for a couple of years, this is a process of constant improvement. What’s forcing this is the realization that a “one size fits all” mentality cannot work in such a complicated organisation as ours.

How do you communicate and coordinate with the business — that is, TfL’s many disparate operations?

In the past, we used to run good, old-fashioned governance meetings. Now we’ve actually turned that on its head: We go to our operating businesses and utilize their meeting structure and their collaboration forums to understand what it is that they’re doing. So instead of a technically led environment, it becomes a business-led environment.

The other thing we do is to actually understand our operating businesses. So instead of having a developer, infrastructure engineer or service-desk person work in almost complete isolation, as we did in the past, now we invite them to work with the operating businesses. That way, they can understand what languages the businesses utilize and what their problems are.

Technology as-a-Service is transforming the IT world. How about at TfL?

Yes, it’s something we utilize where appropriate. But people think that you can deliver all of your services right away across a public sector organisation. In some cases, that works well, because the information classification works well as a service; in other words, we’re not overly concerned with where that data is. But there are other areas where we have to hold the compliance and regulations clauses a little closer to the chest.

Are you using the cloud? If so, how?

Yes, we’re already using public cloud for certain elements of our data management. We provide huge amounts of real-time information for external developers and develop applications for Apple and Android services. We use Microsoft Azure services for those.

So how about security in the cloud?

Security is very important. As a public sector organisation, we need to be transparent and get external demands about where our data can be. And whilst I think security solutions are arriving, I don’t think we’ve cracked them yet. Especially when you overlay the complexity of our line-of-business and operating applications. We have more than 1,000 applications that are utilized daily, some of which are years old and deal with legacy equipment. Once they’re upgraded, I’m sure we’ll have a different view.

It’s said that the CIO’s role has changed. Do you find that to be true?

Yes, you could say that a CIO needs to be more of a digital native, and you need to understand the power of mobility and collaborative tools. I suppose that’s shaping how CIOs think.

But one key skill is being forgotten: We’re still here to devise and educate the organization on how to best use technology. That shouldn’t change. We can’t let the latest shiny toy become strategy. We still need to be advising the organisation on how to get the best return on investment.

About this article:

This interview first appeared in the report about the CSC Global CIO Survey, 2014-2015. Visit

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