by Sooraj Shah

Camden Council CIO Omid Shiraji interview – Becoming digitally mature

Aug 09, 2016
IT Strategy

Camden Council CIO Omid Shiraji calls himself a “next-gen CIO” – that is, according to the interim executive, someone who thinks differently to many of the existing IT leaders out there who are still very much supplier-focused.

‘Digital’ is a big part of this ‘next-gen’ tag, and Shiraji explains that Camden Council is a fitting workplace for him as it’s an excellent example of a digital organisation. This has meant that his interim brief, unlike at many of his previous roles, has not been to rebuild and turnaround the organisation, but to build on what is already there.

Back in February 2014, the council had under CIO John Jackson published a digital strategy in a bid to save money and improve public services, but while Shiraji believes having a distinct digital strategy was necessary a few years ago in order to catalyse the organisation into thinking how it could use digital for social and public sector outcomes, he now believes that the council is in a more mature state.

“We are working on a new organisational strategy and digital is a thread within that; so there will be programmes where digital is an enabler but we no longer need a separate strategy,” Shiraji explains.

Doing shared services properly

Camden and Islington signed a shared services agreement back in September 2015, and since then Haringey Council has joined the agreement. The aim for the three councils is to save a total of £6 million a year.

Shiraji says that it is a challenging but exciting proposition that Camden is taking a measured approach to.

“Traditionally with these shared services there tends to be a ‘big bang’ approach, but we’re taking a different method here,” he says.

This approach involves a Workstream that Shiraji is sponsoring dubbed Design.

“It’s where we’re trying to understand the capabilities of the three councils; what is different, what is the same, what does the data look like, and what are the applications on top. Then we can design an IT operating model based on the needs of the council rather than a standard service that a council then has to consume,” he says.

“This means that all three councils can continue to deliver on their change agenda, rather than becoming hamstrung, which is often what shared services end up delivering,” he adds.

Much like the Tri-borough shared services agreement between Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea councils, Camden and its partners are hiring an IT leader to look over the shared service.

The new chief digital information officer will get a £120,000 salary and a permanent contract, but Shiraji insists that an IT organisational chart has not yet been drawn up, as the councils are still analysing what they’re going to do.

“We’re in the middle of analysing the environment and building the right kind of model, so I don’t have a view as to the structure of the IT service yet, but that’s because I’ve just looked at the capability of the council,” he says, emphasising that the key ingredient to success is a business focus on IT across the three councils.

Data – Big, open and everywhere

Shiraji explains that Camden Council is placing an incredible amount of importance on data. He says that the council has invested in an open data platform, and has an open data charter.

“We’re looking at releasing this data into the public and helping our ecosystem of developers and businesses to use our data to solve their problems,” he says.

The council has also released some dashboards for use by these external parties, and it wants to take the use of data one step further.

“We’re asking ‘how do you foster and help improve and incubate businesses in the borough’, and ‘how do you skill up the people who work in your borough to meet the needs and demands of those businesses’, and ‘how do you link those things together’?”

Shiraji also wants to see data used to enable the council to intervene earlier in social care situations.

“The most expensive and probably most challenging problems we face are helping those really complex needs after an incident. So we’re looking into what data we have that can be combined between different agencies and our own organisation to identify the issues and problems that citizens have and deliver intervention much earlier,” he says.

Public sector Internet of Things

One of the areas which Shiraji believes will aid the council is the Internet of Things (IoT). He suggests that if there were sensors in social housing for example, the council could be better informed and could react accordingly.

He uses the example of sensors in fridges and toilets for elderly people, so that if that fridge hasn’t been opened for a few days or the toilet hasn’t been flushed it could flag that there is something wrong.

Camden Council conducted research into social issues using one particular citizen as an example. She was a single parent who had been moving around for several years, and the council realised that there were several opportunities at which it could have intervened to help – one of them being that a door in a social housing estate needed replacing on numerous occasions.

“We had gone to replace the door a number of times at this property,” says Shirajj. “Now, that’s an indicator for domestic violence, but as far as we were concerned it was a repair.”

“If you put sensors on a door and it says it is getting kicked at this kind of power frequency, you can start to understand patterns of activity that could be an indicator of some serious domestic violence,” he explains.

Shiraji says that it is still early days for IoT within local government but says there are examples of success from the likes of Milton Keynes, Glasgow Council, Chicago and New York. But Camden clearly sees IoT as an opportunity, as it is a pillar of the council’s strategy refresh.

Cloud trendsetter

According to Shiraji, Camden Council will be the very first public sector body to have implemented a cloud ERP solution.

“I think others have implemented modules but we are plugging in the whole thing, so that’s a major change programme,” he says.

Although Shiraji wasn’t a part of the procurement process, he says that the council has a thorough look at the whole market, and based its decision on a number of factors such as the disruption the solution would cause to the organisation, the capability of the platform, the ease of migration, the cost and financial benefits. Camden Council selected Oracle’s Fusion product as a result.

“It’s a big play for Oracle in the public sector and everyone is watching us very closely to see how we get on. Their ERP on-premise product is quite prevalent [in local authorities] as is Oracle in HR and within the financial suite to a certain extent, but their cloud Fusion product isn’t anywhere in its entirety,” Shiraji states.

He says that the platform will enable the council to standardise all of its data in order to gain “a single version of the truth” for its internal data. It will also enable Camden to automate and streamline a lot of its processes in order to support core services.

Shiraji has a one-year interim contract at the council, but he could be instrumental in how the council progresses in a number of key IT areas.