by Mark Chillingworth

Arts Council CIO Owen Powell manages a change in scene and service

Jan 25, 2010
CareersGovernmentIT Leadership

CIOs in all government sectors will be looking to make major savings and restructure their organisations to meet increasing demands this year but Owen Powell, IT director at the Arts Council, is already well down the road of transformation. We met with Powell at his office just off Whitehall to learn what his peers will need to consider, and the role of IT and the CIO in art. “People come here as a vocation; a lot of the people here are arts practitioners, one of the executive directors is a poet,” Powell says of the non-technical community of users within the organisation he has to support. “The core function of the Arts Council is the distribution of half a billion pounds a year in arts funding around England. We are also monitoring the outcome of the funding, which is becoming more of a strategic direction.” The Arts Council, in Whitehall parlance, is a Non-Departmental Public Body and reports to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Its relationship with Whitehall is “arm’s length” so that the “government are not making art decisions, the decision making is devolved to us”, Powell explains, “We see ourselves as advocates for art, not just the funding body.” “The Arts Council is going through a big transformation at the moment and there is a reduction in people as a result, but more importantly is the shift in how we approach our role,” Powell says. “We will be less bureaucratic. Because we are linked to the government we have been perceived as admin-heavy. Well, we now want to be closer to the artistic organisations we fund.” The Arts Council receives its funding from the government every three years and it does come with “strings attached”, which at the last payment, made before the credit crisis, was for a reduction in administration costs. A strategy of centralisation and simplification has been running through the organisation since 2002 when the regional and central boards came together. Powell is keen to stress that the Arts Council has not been cutting jobs just because a mandarin two streets away demands- it. “All of the corporate services went through changes last year,” he says of the overall transformation that has been repainting the organisation. “We centralised our IT and relocated it to Manchester along with HR and finance.” Here Owen Powell’s views on staff management in the CIO UK podcast The review demonstrated to Powell that what the Arts Council needed was a helpdesk-centred approach to its operations- and that included IT. As a result, Powell’s department now has two divisions, a requirements team and the service desk, and it’s not just a helpdesk for IT, but a function that aids the entire organisation and its users, the artistic community of England. The transformation has meant that for Powell the staffing levels have not changed, just the make-up of his team has altered. He has still managed to reduce costs as well through having a radically different departmental structure. “The focus is on a wider range of services; we’ve brought business analysis back in house so we can now convert people’s business needs into the systems and we have IT managers to help the different parts of the organisation with the IT side of their departmental projects,” he says.

Completing a transformation project, with a new structure that perfectly reflects the direction that the organisation is taking, is a nice feeling for any CIO, but whenever the journey involves changes to the workforce it also includes difficult moments for managers. “Letting people go was difficult, but the Arts Council is a sympathetic employer and funded training for those leaving. We pooled the funding per individual together and were able to negotiate with a training company a very good discount on three courses for them. “My role was helping people come to terms with change and to help people with mentoring. Mentoring is a key part of my management style; I’m not a ‘shouty’ manager. The best way of doing things is to take a developmental approach.”

Look North Manchester hosts a new service centre for the Arts Council, including a shared service desk for enquiries, finance, HR and IT. To make this work, the service desk has been moulded and shaped using the principles of ITIL and installing a service desk application from Sunrise Software. Powell says the plan is working and initial feedback from stakeholders across the organisation is positive. Manchester was chosen by the properties team at the Arts Council, which identified that the city, believed to be the inspiration for Coketown in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, as being ideal for its needs. Manchester beat off Birmingham due to its diverse workforce and better transport links. Fellow cultural heavyweight the BBC is also moving into the city in 2011, with 2500 jobs moving from London to work alongside the Corporation’s BBC North regional staff at Salford Quays. Setting up the new Manchester service centre from scratch and employing 19 new people was not without its challenges. “They had no cultural knowledge of the Arts Council, so it was a big knowledge transfer and they didn’t know each other to work with. They had anxieties about the size of the project as well, but they dealt with it very well,” he explains. Powell himself was very hands-on and spent much of the last summer on Virgin Trains heading up to Manchester to guide the new team. “The key to service management is consistency,” he says. “You expect a certain quality and a standard way of doing things, and ITIL ensures you have that consistency of quality. We use the ITIL model and every-one is trained on it including me, and we all understand the need for a simple and reliable process. Before ITIL we were good at resolving IT issues, but didn’t tell people the issue was fixed. Consistency builds confidence.”

Time for Sunrise Powell opted for a Sunrise service desk platform, a popular option with a number of public-sector bodies including police forces, cultural, healthcare and education providers as well as retailer Mothercare and financial provider Paragon Group. “I wanted something cost-effective; we are not a huge organisation, so didn’t want something too big and it had to be ready to use,” he says. “The software for a service desk has to be second nature, so your team can solve the user’s problems instantly. We didn’t want to bring a consultant in every time we wanted to make a small change. We had to have control, it is crazy to me to bring consultants in…” he adds. Words that will be warmly welcomed in some political circles where threats to drastically cut the number of consultants in the public sector have become operatically loud. The Arts Council helpdesk receives between 60 and 80 calls a day, the bulk being from members of the artistic community who are going through the funding process. “Our main business system is complex, so you need to understand that as much as you do the IT system,” says Powell. Another benefit of the transformation to a single shared service is that Powell sees technology playing an important part in the future of the council and its desire to get closer to the artistic community it serves. The organisation is already advertising for people to provide reviews of arts events around the country so that the Council has a wider canvas of artistic opinion at its fingertips. Powell says this initiative comes from an acceptance that the Council can’t review everything and, in tune with the democratic web-driven world we live in, everyone is capable of providing valuable feedback. Arts Council staff will become more mobile in the future as well, and Powell says he is busy assessing greater use of laptops, BlackBerry devices and increased home working. He sees such developments as being less about the technology and more about the training, skills and culture people need to adopt. Read Owen Powell’s responses to the CIO Questionnaire “It is not realistic to expect that you will be online all the time, so people will need to plan their work accordingly and work in different ways,” he explains. Social media will improve the way Arts Council staff interact, and how its community interacts with it as an organisation. A new website will include greater use of platforms of the moment such as Twitter, Facebook and RSS, and the Council already has a presence on the Second Life virtual world. As an organisation responsible for issuing funding to the arts, the grant management process is the main business system for the Council, incorporating workflow for grant application, approval and payment. Powell is currently moving this into the online arena, which, while placing greater pressure on the new service desk, will also reduce administration levels and costs. In preparation for this Powell has already overseen a virtualisation project of all Arts Council servers. “It’s nice to feel that you are promoting something that is doing so much good,” Powell says of the Council, where he has been IT director for four years. He joined the Arts Council from a mental health trust in a career that has the public sector as its major theme, including stints at the University of Surrey.

Beyond computers It was his time working in the mental health sector that reminded him of his initial interest in psychology, in which he has a degree. He is currently training in occupational psychology, which he says pairs well with the CIO role. “What you see as IT director is how an organisation can improve,” he says. “Organisations don’t exploit technology opportunities. Computers are just 10 per cent of IT, and as we move forward they are becoming a smaller part of our work. It is in other technologies that you get value from the information, governance and the technology that matters.” Powell believes having a CIO on the board is beneficial to all organisations. “Most IT directors have something to say about the company culture, and it’s a shame… when you don’t have board-level IT directors then good decisions are not made about IT. IT has become commoditised, which is great, so you can focus on the bit specific to your organisation. Powell hopes his new studies and recent experience will enable him to help organisations change. “It is easy to talk about computers, but it’s the strategic linkage between technology and the organisation’s people that is exciting,” he says.