North London CIO on a mission to get suppliers thinking differently about local gov

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez May 6, 2014

John Jackson
We have written a lot here at diginomica about how central government in the UK is working hard to overhaul its legacy systems and services to create online digital products for citizens – both praising its successes and criticising where it is falling short. However, although central government is an important part of the future government landscape, we often forget a lot of a citizen's interaction with public sector digital products will depend on a transformation at a local level. A variety of services that impact people's everyday lives are dealt with locally and there is a huge amount of opportunity, and a big challenge, for councils to direct their IT spend towards creating new online products.

However, given the disparate nature of the local government market in the UK, with 433 principal authorities in total, it's quite hard to get a clear picture of how cities and counties are progressing with their digital transformations. This is why I try to keep an eye out for the early adopters and the first movers, in order to get an understanding of what challenges they are facing. One of these early innovators is Camden Council, a north west London borough that is at the forefront of trying to tackle moving away from a locked-in legacy architecture, to freed up digital services that are available to all citizens.

Camden published its first digital strategy earlier this year, which focused on a number of key areas including: free WiFi across the borough, developing new solutions with partners to reduce inequality, creating the conditions to harness the benefits of economic growth, investing in sustainable neighbourhoods, providing democratic and strategic leadership, and achieving value for money for services by getting it right the first time. You can read a story I wrote on the strategy here or you can read the strategy in full here.

Having read the strategy, I was keen to catch up with Camden's CIO John Jackson, whom kindly agreed and I met recently for a very interesting discussion about the Council's challenges. Jackson, who has been working at Camden Council for the past nine years, is passionate about using digital to make the lives of his local residents better. He said to me that by 2017 he would like see the following:

“We will have joined up the organisation, the services, so that they can collaborate, work efficiently and have data earlier, so that they can support vulnerable clients earlier than would have been the case. We will see that whole seamless, joined up piece saving lots of money because you are not doing things twice, but it will also be very good news for vulnerable clients because we are taking a much more holistic, strategic view.”

Essentially he wants siloed systems and departments within the Council to be able to share information seamlessly, so that they can then use data and analytics to pre-empt when services are needed. But how is this going to be achieved without ripping out the Camden's legacy infrastructure?

Focusing on SOA, APIs and SDKs

We hear time and time again about the difficulties organisations face in creating flexible but functional digital products, when they have spent years investing in legacy systems that are locked down and don't have the capability to cope with the demands placed on them by internet driven technologies – just look at the financial sector and all the IT outages that have occurred over the past couple of years. Jackson admits that there is no 'silver bullet' with IT and claims that a lot of decision making sits in 'shades of grey', but the long term plan is to develop a service orientated architecture and force suppliers to provide APIs and SDKs that will allow Councils to develop products on top of their existing systems. However, this isn't an easy task when a local authority doesn't have the buying power of some enterprise giants (but more on that later). Jackson


“The long term plan has to be an architecture like SOA, that allows you to separate out the user experience, from the workflow, from the database, because if you do that then you can move with pace. You can change the way stuff looks, you can connect it to mobile apps, you connect it to devices, you are not having to work with the supplier. You can orchestrate workflow from the front-end to the back-end independently of the app in a way that leaves the data in tact.


“I'm certainly not a fan of big ERP style, one size fits all, chuck Oracle or SAP in, by the way it does CRM or it does social media. It doesn't work. Suppliers, however big they are, cannot provide the range of functionality and flexibility to keep up to date. It's impossible. 

“One of the things that we have been keen to do is to get the suppliers to think differently about the market, because the old approach was pretty much to sell you vertical applications – something that does finance, something that does libraries, something that does enforcement. It was never really to think about the opportunity that comes from integration and systems, particularly across vertical domains. That is hugely significant because it enables organisations like councils to be able to share services, to automate the end-to-end experience.”

For example, a simple council task such as validating a parking permit requires information from a number of different departments. In order to grant the permit, the council needs to know that the resident lives where they say they live, which requires a check on whether or not they have paid their council tax. Traditionally this would require the resident to phone up a customer service assistant, or send in some documents, but if the verticals are integrated and connected, data can be shared and the process can be automated into a single, online request.

However, getting this level of integration via APIs and getting suppliers to give up a certain level of access to their systems with SDKs isn't a straight-forward task when you are a local council with limited buying power – Jackson said that it's a commercial consideration for the suppliers.

“These would enable me to interface, develop on top of their systems. It would enable me to develop on top of systems in a way that is consistent, supported and scalable within that architecture. There is a problem though for these suppliers of legacy systems to provide APIs, to provide web services, to provide SDKs, because it has not been part of their DNA before. 

“I don't think it's a question of appetite, it's more a question of can they afford to do it, can the product support it? I think they want to do it, but there is a commercial consideration for them – it begins to commoditise some of the functions that they have. It allows new market entrants to begin cannibalising their revenue base.

“If we want to be competitive as a software industry and we want to be a world leader of this stuff, we have to build interoperability and APIs and SDKs – that's the way we are going survive. We could stick with our lock-in systems, suppliers as they are, but this stuff isn't going to go away.”

Local Authority Software Framework

One of the key tools that Jackson has helped to develop to make this possible is the Local Authority Software Framework – a £360 million framework with a list of services and products that local councils can buy from. Although the framework has been developed by the Crown Commercial Service in central government, Jackson has played a role in ensuring that the interoperability requirements are evident throughout the framework for when suppliers sign up to the agreement. The contract went out to tender last month and asks suppliers to bid for a number of lots, including open government systems, interoperability and integration services.

Camden digital
The reason that Jackson saw this framework as a useful tool and wanted to help form it, is that it creates a market for suppliers that has scale and reach – selling to all local councils via a framework is more attractive than dealing with one local council, which creates an opportunity for councils to include conditions that would otherwise be unattractive for the suppliers.

“The Crown Commercial Service has actually worked with local government this time to make sure there is a much more collaborative and a better understood model. What I think is game changing is that we have worked hard to build in hooks like APIs, SDKs, web services, interoperability, and we have marbled that throughout the document. Marbled it into the notice, marbled it into the questionnaires, marbled it into the ITT, marbled it into the requirements. 

“Another innovation is that we have put in a horizontal lot – normally you would buy a system that's for regulation, or planning. But we have built in a horizontal lot, which gives a group of suppliers a job to link it all up. So enterprise search, master data management, enterprise service bus, it creates a group of suppliers whose job it is to connect things up. So apart from building it into the requirements, we have created this horizontal opportunity too. This allows us to do things like shared services, it allows early intervention with kids because we can spot things sooner with a single view of the customer – all of this becomes possible with the framework.

“You want to be a little bit careful because you want to create a big market, because that's what makes this work. You want suppliers to be successful through this. It's a fine balance between being too specific and not specific enough. But what's good for them is that there is a single route to market and the opportunity of scale.”

Complaints about the G-Cloud

On a separate, but related, note – Jackson also had some comments about the UK government's G-Cloud. We have covered the topic a lot at diginomica, most recently with Stuart's excellent special report, which looked at how there has been a lack of momentum behind the project in recent months. With comments coming from all over the place about what needs improving I'm not going to add too much more to what Jackson said, but his three main gripes are about the controversial two year contracts, the lack of education around the G-Cloud and the pricing. He said that the G-Cloud is proving to be a useful and disruptive tool, but the following should be considered:

“People don't understand what it can do. There's three problems I have seen. One is that it is a one size fits all term, and that's fine if it's all commoditised, but what we want to do in the cloud is not yet all commoditised. So deal term can be a block. I don't sign up for Oracle and say it's only two years, because I don't want to be panicking at the end of two years and trying to swap out my Oracle system. 

“The second problem is that if you try and buy something like Oracle SaaS, you need a degree to work out how it is priced.

They have got to deal with that. Vendors aren't going to put what the real price is, because they don't want to reveal their commercials to anybody. 

“The third is about education – people really don't know what is there and how it fits with everything. I think one of the jobs is to get out there and explain how it fits together. The way they sell it is that you can go and buy something off the shelf and it will work, but with the stuff that's currently running, legacy apps, complex sharing arrangements, it needs a bit more TLC and a bit more work before you dump it in the cloud.”