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Camden Council CIO on what it takes to create a digital organisation

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 25, 2014
John Jackson is an innovator on the UK local government scene – Camden Council has come a long way and is on a path to becoming a truly agile and digital workforce.

John Jackson
Local government organisations in the UK are often seen as digital laggards when compared to some of the innovations that are taking place in central government. However, one council that is regularly held up as an exemplar for taking on board the digital agenda is the north London borough of Camden.

With a turnover of £1 billion, £350 million in operating costs, 220,000 residents, 5,000 employees and 600 different lines of business, it is a complex and diverse organisation. And CIO John Jackson has spent the last few years driving agility and digital throughout the Council in an attempt to simplify some of this complexity, introduce innovation and agility, as well as cut out the costs that are being forced by austerity.

This isn't a challenge that should be underestimated. Jackson explained at Ovum's Future of Work Summit in London this week that when Camden first embarked on this journey it was faced with cutting out £150 million from the bottom line by 2018, whilst balancing the fact that the expectations of citizens and residents are rising.

Since then Jackson has implemented a digital strategy that goes through the heart of Camden Council and has led to it stripping out paper (which it had 22 kilometres of when it started), consolidating its estate, introducing agile ways of working, going mobile by default and creating digital centres of excellence.

Jackson stated that companies that want to attract the top talent need to be prepared to make some fundamental changes in how they do business, which requires a different type of workforce. He said:

Typically now the people coming into organisations don't work the way that we are used to, they are not used to paper, they are not used to desktops. They are used to tablets, they are used to social media. The people you want to attract don't work within the existing hierarchies, so don't expect to have them.

Fundamentally there are some huge changes in workforce expectations. If you want the best people you really need an agile, digitally enabled workforce to do it. When I started on the digital journey all the focus to me was: stick it in the cloud, dirt cheap, get your IT costs down. However, this is not about an IT cost. This is fundamentally about an organisational transformation.

Jackson explained that when he looked at Camden's costs, up to 97% of the controlled expenditure came from people, the Council's assets and its processes. Not IT. As a result, he said that he could have put all the technology he wanted into the cloud, he could get in cheap desktops, he could run on Linux, but it wouldn't drive the fundamental changes required. Jackson decided to focus the digital transformation on people, assets, processes and how digital technologies enable those things. Jackson said:

 When you start with this journey, to get the organisation to move en-masse, the first thing that you have to do is align your overall strategy for business with your digital strategy. If the two do not align then you have a problem from day one. People won't know what digital is, they won't know what you're trying to achieve, they won't know how it relates to their business.

Camden's digital strategy is publicly available and certainly worth a read – it is often referred to when discussing digital in local government and is held-up as a valuable tool for others looking to drive digital change across their organisation. However, with this focus on digital transforming processes and people, rather than just making a change in technology, Jackson had some words of advice for those embarking on a similar journey.

Here are some of the key takeaways from Jackson's presentation:

Identify digital leaders – Jackson said that getting a digital strategy in place is all well and good, but without top-down support, implementation will fall flat. He said:

You don't get digital to work without the organisation driving it itself. You don't get the agility in the workforce unless they drive it, it's not driven by the technical teams. This is about leaders being digitally savvy and wanting different ways of working. Everything we are doing now, we are doing digitally and electronically by default.

That is a very, very powerful behaviour from the top table. If the chief exec is doing it, the expectation is that others must follow. That's a powerful enabler.

Get digital built into policy – Although mostly relevant for those working in government, the same can also be applied to corporate strategy. Jackson's point is that digital has to be considered in everything that the organisation is trying to do.

We have a lot of policies around planning, procurement, etc. We want people who draft those policies to be thinking, what does that mean for digital? If I let a contract for something big, what do I need to build into that contract so that it's digitally enabled? It's thinking digitally all the time, building digital by default into the heart of the organisation.

Get the right kind of governance in place – Jackson points to his success being driven by the fact that he is solely accountable for the digital agenda.

Camden digital
He explained that organisations need to get a governance structure in place that allows for digital innovation through the ability to take risks and for people to be held responsible for their decisions.

It's about taking risks and doing things differently, it's about experimentation. One of the things I have benefited from is being able to get on with the job, being trusted to do the job. I am accountable for what Camden does on digital, but that empowers me.

I was struggling when preparing this presentation about whether or not I wanted to use the word governance. But actually it is important, but it's about the right type of governance. What you don't want is lots of project boards, with lots of thick piles of risks that no-one ever reads.

I think that's part of the problem, we put in place governance because we think that's a great thing and we like methodologies. But actually what they become is a straight jacket. It's about creating a governance structure that allows decision making, but also accountability.

Digital advocates – Similar to identifying digital leaders, Camden has benefitted from identifying digital advocates that translate the importance of change to those running the organisation.

If you are going to change an organisation from top to bottom, you need people within every service that are advocates for that organisational change. These people will translate the corporate stuff into what matters on the ground – how does it affect my service everyday if the expectation is that we are going to operate laptop by default? How does it affect my service if we are going to be paperless by default? These are questions that unless you've got somebody within the service managing the phase, will quickly lead to a rebellion.

Agile links business and IT – Jackson said that when he started on his digital journey, he viewed agile development as a 'soft' and expensive way of developing technology. However, what he has come to realise is that it helps to align both business and IT during the transformation.

I'm a convert to agile. When I first started using it I thought it was expensive, I thought it was the hippy way of doing IT with everybody doing high-fives and sticking stickers on doors. But actually what it does as a methodology is it brings together the people that are responsible for the process, the people that do the digital stuff, and the people responsible for taking decisions for how it looks when it is finished. Bring those things together, co-locate them and get them sprinting – it's a whole different relationship between business and IT. I've never looked back and I love it.

Organise IT around digital initiatives – One of the things that Jackson found was holding back the digital agenda and creating an agile workforce was that the technology functions were situated within silos. To change this, Camden now views its IT organisation as part of four digital or cost-cutting initiatives, with the technology required to manage each of them, joined together within them. He said:

Typically we organise IT around data centres, clouds, desktops, networks, telephony, collaboration tools. That didn't work. This created problems with agile working because people would talk to the desktop team about laptops, they'd talk to the networks team about telephony, they'd call up my records team to talk about information management. I thought that was crazy. You never got anything done. We needed to join everything up.

So what I have done at Camden is reorganise IT, fundamentally around delivery for big cost-cutting capabilities - council wide to the organisation, on demand. The team running agile working is responsible for getting us paperless, getting us mobile by default, etc. A part of the organisation is going to deal with online services and channel shift. A part of the organisation is responsible for joining things up, integrating platforms and networks. We have a team focused on BI and open data.

I have found that an organisation that can deliver these four capabilities on-demand, with good programme management, is in a good place.

View technology in 'clumps' – Second to the point above, as well as reorganising IT, Jackson now delivers technology in 'clumps' across the council. What this allows is for certain functions to consume what they need, when they need it, without it being mandated to them. He said:

When we came to delivering the tech into the organisation, we delivered them as a clump. A clump of technologies, applied individually to the places it was needed. And what we found was that services would consume these technologies at different rates and different depths. Some of the front line parts of the organisation would want more mobile, for example. Some of the parts of that collaborate more, want more sharing.

We have developed an approach where not only have we themed the IT organisation to be digital in delivering its capabilities, but we have also themed up the technologies into clumps so that they could be delivered as a group of technologies into the organisation. This is very different to the way we do IT normally.

Don't underestimate comms – Jackson added that one of the areas that Camden initially failed on was effectively communicating change across the organisation. Instead of relying on corporate messaging, allow people to talk about what they have done, where they have failed and to explain what has worked. Don't be afraid to talk about what went wrong and create a platform for people to discuss their transformation.

One of the things that didn't work, we undercooked comms. I cannot emphasise enough how important communications is to getting the alignment between top and bottom. What really brings the alignment alive is the user stories, the war stories, what have people done differently and how they have changed the way they work. It's got a mark of authenticity that the corporate machine doesn't have. You want people to be able to speak on your behalf and emphasise and amplify what's going on.

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