by Edward Qualtrough

Manchester City Council CIO Bob Brown interview – Customer-centric IT alignment

Dec 11, 2016
GovernmentIT Leadership

“This isn’t just IT thinking this would be a good idea; we’re answering a need that’s there that people haven’t been listening to,” says Manchester City Council CIO Bob Brown.

The local authority’s first CIO was discussing the council’s new ‘Know-It-All’ technology and IT support bars rather than the creation of the Chief Information Officer position in Manchester when CIO UK visited the organisation in the autumn, although Brown later explains CIOs always need to deliver and demonstrate their value – especially when performing a newly-created role in a political environment.

Brown took on the CIO role at Manchester City Council in January 2015, taking the organisation on a transformation agenda with the goal of putting the customer at the heart of its strategy, rebuilding its legacy estate and having the most business-aligned IT service in local government. Recognised in the 2016 CIO 100, Brown worked to make the new centralised technology a strategic partner to the whole council and turn ICT “from a poor-performing service and delivery function to one that brings delivery certainty to our customers”.

The former financial services IT executive, who worked at Nationwide, HBOS and Aviva and who also has experience on the vendor side with HCL Technologies, said that reinventing the service desk had been crucial to changing the perception of the department. Staffed by Brown’s IT team and with the CIO himself also contributing with a regular shift, the ‘Know-It-All’ bars – where council staff bring their technology problems to a friendly service desk – got the IT department closer to the rest of the organisation as well as improving a telephone-based IT support service that was underperforming.

“The Know-It-Alls started as a direct need for us to provide our cause with a better service,” Brown said. “One of the levels of transformation was to provide a face-to-face relationship with IT.

“We needed to provide a solution that gave us a real presence and a real connection with our customer base, our colleagues, our partners and others that use the service.

“We made it really clear, right from the outset, that this was something we hoped to address this need and deliver these values. If truth be known, it was a bit of a gamble.”

From service desk to CIO

Indeed, Brown told CIO UK that he had started his career on the IT service desk before becoming a CIO via the “management or project management groove rather than the technology delivery route”. Combined with a stint working in pre-sales for an IT vendor, he said his background offered him a recognition of the value of those roles and how to get the best out of everybody.

“My history of talking to customers through the service desk about a particular service we were delivering to the business gave me a real understanding of the user level experience as well as just how differentiated it was from the marketing seller,” he said.

“On the help desk or customer service desk, there is the recognition that the reality of how users were interacting with technology was different from what that sale was. I have constantly stayed with that mission, in terms of the user experience, and recognising therefore that our customers who are either buying our services or using our services or trying to interact with our services, we always need to think about the user level and the user experience.”

Having a diverse department which represents its customers is an important part of providing a good user experience, Brown explained, as well as providing a healthy working environment.

“If we are truly trying to service the real residents and the population of Manchester, we’ve got to have a representation of that real customer base. Not everyone is able-bodied. Not everybody has got perfect hearing or perfect vision,” he said.

“I think this is the sort of environment that people can flourish in.”

The Know-It-All tech support function has been such a success Brown is overseeing an expansion of the service with a hub at their city centre headquarters as well as being taken out on the road to visit other offices as a pop-up function. Operating within budgetary constraints, however, Brown is turning to vendors and some of Manchester City Council’s IT suppliers to sponsor the programme.

Having worked on the IT vendor side and now operating within a period of public sector austerity, Brown is keen to be demanding of his suppliers by asking them to chip in with “some of their business development dollars to fund the expansion of the Know-It-All bars” – as well as being perpetually wary of how he spends public money.

“When I need to spend money, I always think to myself that I’m on stage in some local hall,” he said. “I’ve got the population in front of me – residents and taxpayers. I’ve got to stand there and justify why I want to spend their money that way. It’s a great leveller for me to know that.”

The CIO leans similarly on Manchester City Council’s suppliers, reasoning that in the absence of a research and development function then his supplier base is his R&D team.

SMEs and startups

By being transparent with the council’s strategy and IT roadmap, Brown said that customers and vendors can form more fruitful partnerships rather than hiding behind a transactional relationship.

“If you work well with partners, what you tend to find is that you’re aligning yourselves to work better together,” Brown said. “If I just hide behind a relationship, because you provide a transactional service for me and I let you guess what I need, and you keep trying to sell me stuff over and over, you’re throwing darts in the dark. I live my life a little bit more transparently than that.”

Brown said that not only has Manchester City Council found a number of new smaller technology partners, they have also been able to attract others to Manchester and the north west serving a broader purpose to the region.

“We do have some mega-vendors in our world: BT, SAP, Oracle and these sorts of places,” Brown said. “But crucially, our strategy is akin to an SME base.

“That can give us some of the dynamics that help us to underpin a closeness of the relationships that we want to forge, supporting the growth agenda we’ve got from Manchester because they are based here.

“For us to be able to underpin our whole social value agenda of having organisations that are obviously breeding future technology by simply being located here to support social value paying business rates, using our transport network, using our hospitals, doctors. It’s a virtuous circle.”

Vendor management

Since starting the new vendor management and sourcing aspect of Manchester City Council’s IT strategy and agenda, Brown said that 70% of the authority’s IT supplier account managers have had to change. Having been involved in pre-sales but having a ruthless focus on the customer and positive outcomes, Brown has put the onus on their partners to build relationships with account managers who are outcome-based driven rather than driven by revenue.

Furthermore, the CIO is keen to see more of his peers working across local government to push the boundaries of the situation they are in.

“If our partners and our suppliers paid and rewarded their people on the basis of successful outcomes, we would have a far better and mutually beneficial relationship than if somebody is just determined to sell me – as far as our company is concerned – the next thing,” Brown explained. “I know there are some mega vendors whose sole mission in life is to sell their agenda, to the extent that they don’t even listen to what their customers are after.

“As has happened in local authority and local government for years and years, they’ve just accepted what they’ve been given. If you work with my city council, I guarantee you’ll know who the customer is.”

One of Manchester City Council’s newest suppliers is Google, with Brown describing its suite of office apps as an enormous leap forward in the organisation’s ability to collaborate and work differently. The mobility and improved service also comes with a seven-figure saving, Brown added.

Rationalisation and shared services

Having delivered a first-class IT service desk, delivered the IT to the whole of the UK for the June 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, aligned Manchester City Council’s technology with its other goals and refashioned the way it sources and works with its suppliers, Brown said that his next focus is to reduce costs. The CIO said that this was a financial imperative which meant the council would “have to do things differently”.

From an IT perspective, Brown said that there is also a great opportunity to develop en masse a shared services agenda to rationalise and standardise architectures and partner environments, as well as the tackling the health and social care agenda to reduce the council’s costs and pressures on the NHS budget.

This involves a move from the reactive end of acute care to the preventative end, Brown added, and will involve many conversations around standards, data sharing and data protection until progress is made and the benefits are realised.

IT skills

Recruitment and a lack of relevant IT skills are a challenge for Manchester City Council CIO Brown, who said that there were not enough people with the right skill levels to meet demand at the moment in the region.

While appreciating that in many instances the local authority is unable to compete with some private sector organisations on pay, Brown believes some of the larger organisations in the region are exacerbating the problem by driving the salary structure for daily rate contractors ever upwards.

“I think there’s still far too many organisations here who don’t recruit from the bottom up and then develop their staff,” Brown said.

During CIO UK‘s visit to Manchester Brown reiterated the comments of Graham Benson, CIO of Manchester-based, that to some degree the region is becoming the victim of its own success by attracting big companies to the area.

“We just do not have enough of the right skilled individuals or the right level of experience across Greater Manchester today; there’s too much going on,” Brown said.

One proposal mooted by Brown was for the CIOs to come together and develop plans for sharing skills, resources and training development across Greater Manchester.

CIO leadership

Brown is approaching his two-year anniversary as Manchester City Council’s first CIO as the organisation enters a new period under incoming CEO Joanne Roney – following the announcement Sir Howard Bernstein would retire – and with an inaugural mayoral election for Greater Manchester in May 2017.

Operating in this political environment, Brown knows that it is by delivery and offering the improved service that the CIO and executive tech leadership role can flourish.

“I think one of the big challenges that CIOs have, but particularly here for me, is continuation of the significance of what the department does and the role that the CIO,” Brown said. “It’s a unique position I hold here in Greater Manchester and one that I think some are still finding hard to understand.

“But no CIO will exist without continuing to deliver and needing to do something on a regular basis that demonstrates his or her value.

“And don’t get me wrong, you don’t report to the Chief Exec without the CEO feeling that that’s a valued thing to do.”

Furthermore, amid the transformational changes that Brown says are going to happen in Manchester over the next few years, the CIO is in a unique position to play a key leadership role in a new style of organisation.

“At the council people are gravitating towards a new leadership style, a new way of working, a new engagement ability, a transparency in terms of how you work,” said Brown, the only member of Manchester City Council’s senior executive team whose glass fishbowl office in the middle of his team is not shut off from the rest of their team.

“You’ve got to be seen. Leadership for me is by example in many aspects. If you are not visible, and you hide behind email or a telephone – you’re largely irrelevant these days. People will find a way of doing things behind your back or they’ll find a way without having to engage.”