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Leeds City CDIO - ‘Too many public sector IT leaders are stuck in the past’

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 1, 2019
Too few technology chiefs understand the power of disruption, says Leeds City Council’s digital executive.

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Dylan Roberts, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at Leeds City Council, is taking a pioneering and proactive leadership approach to digital change that puts individual outcomes at the heart of transformational service delivery. Roberts, who has been with Leeds for more than 15 years, assumed the CDIO role in June 2016.

His success in the role is connected to his ability to work with partner organisations to deliver better outcomes across a range of city-focused areas, such as health and wellbeing, housing standards, travel and transport, and full-fibre connectivity:

“Digital plays a key role here. All parties need to work together to think about how digital can be used to create better outcomes for people. And I believe that’s a case in the private sector, too. The people that will win in the digital age are those who make the best collaborations across ecosystems to deliver personalised solutions.”

Defining a new style of public sector IT leadership

As a digital leader, Roberts refers to himself as “an orchestrator of an ecosystem” that includes technology partners, such as Canon, and public sector service specialists, such as third-sector parties, independent providers, community groups and charities.

And while Leeds benefits from this strong digital network, Roberts says he and his colleagues are also facilitating a community-based ecosystem to deliver big benefits to citizens:

“That includes things like enabling more than 4,000 voluntary and independent organisations with a platform to support a significant growth in digital services in key areas like health.

“We want to work with the private sector to co-produce solutions that solve the city’s problems and which can then be exported to other places. It’s all about how we can make some operational work redundant so that we can instead focus on delivering to the people who are most in need.”

As well as being CDIO at Leeds, Roberts chairs the local CIO Council. This group includes IT leadership representation from across the region. The CIO Council assesses and attempts to influence wider government strategy in areas such as industry, economy and cybersecurity. Roberts says his work for this group suggests that elements of the broader CDIO role he fulfils are becoming more commonplace:

“We’re in an era now where digital and technology are disrupting multiple business models – our role, as local government leaders, is to think about how we can use these systems and services to improve our communities.”

Yet it’s not all good news. While Roberts sees evidence of pioneering digital leadership in his own community, he is concerned too many UK public sector IT leaders are stuck in the past. While digital provides an opportunity for the public sector to enable better outcomes for citizens, Roberts believe at least two-thirds of public sector CIOs are still too distracted by operational concerns:

“I travel across the UK and talk to a lot of people. A third of the country is trying to do things like I’m trying to do – there are CIOs who are influencing change and being proactive. Another third of the country are sitting there trying to keep things going; they’re under pressure, but if they get the direction, they’ll put the playbook into motion.

“And then there’s another third of the country who are just totally clueless and don’t know what they’re doing. That’s the current state of public sector IT leadership, but what we can do about it?”

Focusing on the delivery of better outcomes for citizens

Roberts says changing the status quo of public sector IT leadership in the UK comes down to the chief executives who run organisations. At Leeds, Roberts says CEO Tom Riordan enables change and removes barriers that might otherwise hinder progress. Crucially – and even more importantly, says Roberts – he understands the importance of all-things digital:

“If you’ve got a CEO who’s not digitally savvy, and who doesn’t understand the value that technology can bring, and how it can disrupt business models, then it’s impossible. My CEO is my lead advisor when it comes to disruption. If you’re a CEO or board that isn’t digitally savvy – and this is a big weakness in the public sector, as well as the private sector – then you shouldn’t be in your job.”

Roberts says technology should be ingrained within public sector approaches to transformation. Yet he also believes too many experts still fail to make the connection. For example, Roberts says people within the industry often ask him to define his IT strategy – what these individuals should be focusing on instead is how digital can enable better outcomes for citizens:

“What we need now is chief executives and boards coming up with business strategies where digital is at the core – they should be identifying the opportunities for digital to help them disrupt their existing business models and deliver better outcomes, especially in the public sector. There are opportunities for digital to be introduced and to help deliver better outcomes for individuals at a time when many organisations are struggling.”

Roberts is running a range of cross-body initiatives at Leeds to help his team focus on the needs of the local individual. These projects include the ‘City as a Platform’ approach, which aims to deal with the increase in demand for public services at the same time as budget cuts. The approach ensures service delivery is focused on outcomes that are enabled by the effective use of digital, data and technology in communities. To meet those objectives, Roberts says like-minded public sector CIOs must think about how they can re-use components to create new, digital services:

“You don’t have to keep building bespoke solutions for individuals. Now, in terms of delivering better outcomes for citizens, that means we need to know how we integrate with other public sector partners. The key achievement has been how me, my team and my CEO have enrolled other IT leaders from across the public sector system to come together and focus on how they will create better outcomes for the people of Leeds.

“Enrolling people in that mission and that change in direction has probably been my biggest achievement.”

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