Connected Norfolk leads the way

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth February 2, 2022 Audio mode
CIO Geoff Connell explains how he and his team are increasing digital connectivity in rural areas

An image of a Norfolk beach
(Image by William James from Pixabay )

Norfolk is bucking the trend. Lazy stereotypes cast the East Anglian county as a backwater that time and technology has forgotten. Whilst it is true there is a more relaxed atmosphere across the broads, beaches and verdant fields, Norfolk County Council and its CIO have been working frantically to improve connectivity across the region. Yet Parliament's Public Accounts Committee claims that nationwide improvements to broadband availability are unlikely to succeed and provide 'levelling up'. So what is Norfolk doing so well?

We have brought in £10 million of funding for direct deployment by the Council. Using the local fibre network for schools and library buildings as hub spots so that you can force the connectivity to go to those areas. Once you are there, you can lollipop off that, so that makes it cheaper for other networks and organizations to connect.

Geoff Connell, Chief Digital Officer for Norfolk County Council, explains how his organization has played a key role in getting fibre broadband flowing across the UK's fifth-largest county, consisting of five thousand square kilometres of coastline and rural towns and villages. The Broadband for Norfolk initiative has seen record uptake and using funding from Project Gigabit from the Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), Norfolk plans to use an additional £100 million in funding to take fibre connectivity to areas of the county that are not commercially viable to the network providers.

Rural connectivity has always suffered from being too expensive to deploy compared to the number of people using the infrastructure, particularly mobile connectivity. However, Connell has shown how local authorities can act as the catalyst for change. The CIO has mapped where the network gaps are and what public sector infrastructure is within those gaps, which could house a transmitter to improve the connectivity. Connell says:

We are leading the market towards the county towns and villages. Our buildings have a fibre connection, and we offer the mobile operators the opportunity to place their kit there, use our fibre infrastructure, and we only charge them running costs; we don't ask for a share of the profits.

Despite a decade of austerity, where the local Government has borne the brunt of budget cuts, Connell and Broadband for Norfolk have convinced local politicians to improve connectivity over commercial income for the authority.  

Norfolk's strategy could well deliver a commercial income in a post-pandemic economy if the county becomes a hot spot for remote knowledge workers. He adds: 

I wonder how many of these holiday homes with beautiful views will become permanent homes as you can base yourself on the Norfolk coast and not have to worry about the commute, as it will only have to be done occasionally.

Norfolk has also benefited from green venture capital (VC) investments which prioritize offshore wind, solar farms and broadband connectivity as investment vehicles. Norfolk has all three powerhouses of the future economy.

Norfolk has been investing in connectivity improvements for its residents, rather than those that are just weekend citizens, and the switch to online learning during the pandemic has seen demand for adult learning increase by 3000%. Connell believes this is due to students now being able to access classes from home rather than driving to Norwich or another county town and possibly organizing care for their children. All of which were significant barriers to further education.

Low speed levelling up

Norfolk's successes are not being seen elsewhere in the country, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which said in Parliament on January 19, 2022, that it doubts DCMS will meet its downgraded targets to deliver superfast broadband across the UK. Back in 2020 DCMS decreased its target to 85% of the nation by 2025. The key reason that the PAC believes the Government will fail in delivering the change is an over reliance on commercial contractors.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said local authorities should be given the funding and power to improve connectivity in their area in response to the PAC findings. Norfolk's experience suggests the LGA may be seizing the news opportunity but is also in the right. LGA digital connectivity spokesperson Councillor Mark Hawthorne said in a statement:

To help the Government reach its 2025 target, councils need more funding to support telecommunication providers to deliver improvements on the ground. The Government should empower councils to place a local digital champion in every local area to help facilitate delivery and support providers to install gigabit-capable broadband as quickly as possible.

The pandemic lockdowns demonstrated to local governments and the citizens they serve the benefits of digital strategies. Connell believes there will be a lasting benefit to Norfolk County Council and other authorities:

There's a real sense of community that has come out of this. When I look at the performance dashboards of my team, the stats have never been better. So we will be hybrid, and we think that is the best of both worlds.

Connell has also witnessed a positive cultural change in the authority:

COVID flattened hierarchies and internal communications. More messages were conveyed directly to the staff by the leadership, and that helped create a sense of we are all pulling together for a greater good.

The technology team has a new place within the organization's culture too.  

I think the organization realizes that their ability to deliver was completely dependent on IT. We all now know that business continuity cannot go back to pen and paper.

The connectivity investments Connell and Norfolk put in place benefited the authority during the height of the pandemic too. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors were placed across the Council's estate of buildings, which monitored heating levels or conversely damp build-up and allowed the authority to adjust the heating accordingly. He says: 

It is relatively easy to do, and you can create Azure dashboards and then make cost-saving changes immediately. We think it's too early to make dramatic changes to our building portfolio yet, as no one knows what normal will look like in six months' time.

Sense of place

Connell joined Norfolk County Council in April 2016, having been Director of ICT for OneSource, a technology and core shared services organisation for the councils of Newham and Havering in East London. He explains: 

The difference between working in London and Norfolk is that here it is much more about the place. At Newham, it is 350,000 people in 12 square miles, so the market looks after connectivity.

Beyond the cities, local Government plays a more integral role in the economy and lives of citizens. He adds:

In county councils, you are much more responsible for things and working in conjunction with a big NHS footprint. I really like that collaborative working and trying to get the best out of all parties.

But before Connell could begin impacting Norfolk, he had to get the authority up to speed.

The first couple of years were about fixing the things that I knew were not quite right. We created £1 million in savings from slinging out an outsourcing contract that was not delivering and getting rid of multiple versions of software on multiple sources of hardware. It was about getting everything running right and rebuilding the confidence and getting to a position where you have those quality conversations with the business leaders because they know you are on top of the situation.

This has led to Norfolk County Council having what Connell calls an evergreen digital strategy; the latest iteration was launched a year ago. The CIO says this is important, as big projects like connectivity involve a long time frame.

My take

Over the last 13 years, I have seen the CIO role change from the head of technology, in essence delivering technology to the organization dependent on its needs, to an advisor and broker. Connell and Norfolk County Council's results and awards in improving connectivity demonstrate that advisor CIOs are not just for the corporates. In a post-pandemic economy, it is even more important that the public sector has CIOs and CDOs that advise and broker, not just inside the organization but also the wider community.

As I reported recently, digital poverty has risen markedly in the last 10 years. CIOs and local authorities are well placed to counter this, but it requires the public sector to embrace a new role for CIOs. By setting CIOs free, as Norfolk has done, local authorities gain enhanced purpose, communities thrive and that ultimately benefits the economy.

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