Newham and Havering CIO Geoff Connell interview - Connecting local government

Newham Borough Council has made £116 million in savings over the past four years, and its CIO Geoff Connell said in the months before the general election that it had another £60 million to make over the next four - a figure which now stands at £50 million next year rising to £91 million a year from 2019.

"We need to reduce our spending by 35% while delivering more," Connell said before Prime Minister David Cameron returned to 10 Downing Street with a Conservative majority government and a pledge to reduce government spending by £13 billion as part of its planned £30 billion fiscal consolidation.

Indeed, two weeks after the election, Tory council leaders across England and Wales warned Chancellor George Osborne that another round of funding cuts would devastate local services and harm the most vulnerable in society.

"The challenge isn't whether we can maintain the spending reductions, it's a challenge of the demographics and an ageing community," Connell explains.

"We're having to adopt new business modes and operating models. The cuts are more savage in an area like Newham, with a poorer population, and the grants were the easiest thing for the coalition to cut – so we've had to be pretty dramatic in the way we changed things."

He is, however, optimistic that technology can be the enabler underpinning the transformation of local government, offering public bodies a new way of working and of delivering services.

"The challenges of local government are first and foremost austerity, and how you cope with the cuts," he says. "The upside is that people cannot afford to do what they've always done in the past; they have to make changes.

"And when change comes, technology is generally the enabler. So the biggest challenge for me as an individual is how do you balance reducing revenue costs, while reducing the overheads, and retaining the capacity to help the business change? That's the backdrop – having to innovate, while being told to not take any risks. That's the dichotomy we find ourselves in. We need to innovate, but that means challenging the whole operating model."

Shared services

Some of the biggest savings in East London have come through a shared services arrangement between Newham and the nearby borough of Havering. Connell has been at the forefront of the project, informally taking on the CIO role in Havering in 2009 and starting officially in 2010. The arrangement, according to Connell, has produced "millions of pounds of savings a year through joint working as well as pooling of increasing scarce skilled staffing resources, and sharing of best practice."

A 2013 study of 27 anonymous public sector and local government CIOs revealed their frustrations on instigating joint-procurement and shared services arrangements. However, with a view over both estates, and able to espouse the benefits to both organisations, Connell has been able to align the underlying IT structures in Newham and Havering.

When we meet at the Romford-based Havering council offices, he says that merging IT functions has made savings, improved customer engagement and satisfaction in Havering, while Newham has also reaped the benefits of reduced costs with the shared service.

"I reported to two directors in two different boroughs," Connell explains. "Culturally one was Labour and one Conservative, but back office was not an issue. It's about enabling the services people need, and they don't care about sharing a data centre with a neighbouring borough."

The successful technology merger was then the platform to merge other functions and departments across the authorities. "They thought that if it works in IT, then why not in other services? So we spun up oneSource; 1,300 staff in a shared corporate back office – finance, payroll, procurement, HR, legal, IT and facilities management," he says of the single organisation for the boroughs.

"It was off the back of the positive experience with ICT, and there are a number of reasons why that's a good idea. When you merge two organisations, one of the biggest timeline costs and drags can be aligning the technology. But we've done that organically, our new build IT was already here when we created a new shared service."

Just how far could shared services go? As chair of the London CIO Council and Socitm London, Connell understands more than anyone the idiosyncrasies of the capital's IT departments. "There are 33 London boroughs with 33 different sets of politicians, and then don't forget some are outsourced," he says. "So the road map is to find consistency and see where we are trying to do the same thing."

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