Interview

Interview: Nick Roberts, president of Socitm and IT group manager

Caroline Baldwin

This month, Nick Roberts, IT group manager at Surrey County Council, took over as president of Socitm, the association of IT and digital professionals working in and for local public services.

Computer Weekly interviewed Roberts about his new role, asking what his top priorities are for the coming year.

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Digital by default

As well as building on Socitm’s existing work of helping local councils meet the challenges of complying with the Public Services Network (PSN), Roberts intends to push forward on how the government’s 'digital by default' agenda will affect local authorities.

The digital by default strategy, launched in 2012, promotes a new way of working within government, with a digital-first approach to public services.

One part of the strategy is to move 25 ‘exemplar’ public services online. The Government Digital Service (GDS) estimates that it will save £1.8bn a year by moving offline services to digital channels, thereby becoming digital by default.

But the 25 ‘exemplars’ – ranging from visa applications to benefits claims to booking prison visits –are only the beginning, and the government is encouraging central and local government to adopt the digital by default approach.

Roberts thinks digital by default will have real implications for Socitm members as local authorities try to redesign public services as online-first.

“The fact is that we will have to turn everything on its head,” says Roberts. “We have traditionally designed applications around the way the organisation functions.”

The fact is that we will have to turn everything on its head

But digital by default focuses on the citizen and requires local authorities to look at how to build, from the top down, a system that is fundamentally different from what councils are used to.

“There is good evidence from early adopters that you don’t need all the functionality we’ve currently got,” says Roberts. “We can streamline those applications, make them fit for purpose and much more agile, and will potentially see cost-efficiencies.”

Roberts says there is a steep learning curve for the public sector in this area, and he intends to share Socitm case studies to make the task easier.

Build or buy?

The second challenge facing local authorities once they have identified the solution they need is to decide whether to build or buy.

“The local public sector has moved on from when we used to build lots of things 20 years ago, to now, when we tend to configure pre-designed applications from third parties,” he says. “But if we want to gain control and flexibility of the application, we need to consider whether we should build those applications ourselves.”

If we want to gain control and flexibility, we need to consider whether we should build those applications ourselves

If local authorities choose to build digital transaction applications in-house, this raises the question of whether to use open source or proprietary platforms, says Roberts. And he is seeing the public sector go in both ways at the moment.

“Hounslow is using Salesforce.com as a platform, and they’re having success from developing from scratch on that platform,” he says.

Roberts says local authorities now have an appetite to involve SMEs and startup technology companies in building their business applications.

Move to the cloud

He also says it is getting easier for local authorities to move to the cloud – either a private cloud or a collaborative cloud between multiple organisations.

“Microsoft 365, Google Apps and others offer a significant change from where we are now,” says Roberts, pointing out that some local public sectors have already followed that route, including his own council, Surrey, which has some cloud-based applications that are shared across multiple authorities.

But he believes the sector requires a lot of movement before it can truly benefit from the flexibility, easier access and greater collaboration that the cloud offers. “But we need to balance that with adequate security,” he adds.

Socitm Technology Board

Roberts intends to launch a Socitm Technology Board to engage local authority CIOs with industry CTOs. The board would discuss the public sector business problems that need to be addressed and would help local authorities to understand the roadmap of technology solutions expected in the near future. “So we can both be prepared for what’s coming,” he says.

Compliance has come at a cost and it has required the public sector to restrict a lot of things in order to comply

Roberts says he has already spoken to some big players who are interested in getting involved, including industry innovators and visionaries. “There are some good visionary CTOs in the supply chain that have a lot to offer and have some great ideas, which they are open to sharing.

“By giving them the best possible insight into the business challenges we are facing and offering to work with them to help develop and fine-tune solutions, I hope that would be a recipe for good collaboration.”

Public Services Network

PSN has been a contentious issue among public sector bodies over the past year, with councils being threatened with disconnection by heavy-handed central government, as well as arguments over the future of existing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies and the risk they pose to PSN security.

“The sentiment is correct,” says Roberts. “But it needs to be proportional to the level of access to information.”

Previous Socitm president Steve Halliday made progress on the issue by launching a solutions advisory group, and the Cabinet Office changed its attitude towards a strict compliance approach. Only three local councils failed to make the compliance deadline at the end of March.

“It’s great that we got all but a handful of authorities over the line, and a plan for the remaining ones to get there,” says Roberts. “But the key thing is that compliance has come at a cost and it has required the public sector to restrict a lot of things in order to comply.”

Roberts has gained a lot of experience working with the PSN after developing a regional collaboration network between Surrey and Berkshire called the Unicorn PSN, for which he is the programme director as part of his ‘day job’ at Surrey County Council.

I’m keen to find a way of engaging with the silent majority more

Roberts is keen for PSN to move on and find ways for local authorities to achieve their business goals while remaining compliant.

He says the Cabinet Office should consider the specific areas that need further development before authorities go through another annual round of compliance.

“We are in conversations with the Cabinet Office,” he says. “We need to get it right and it needs more work.”

Sanity check

Roberts is also keen to engage with Socitm members more over the next year. The organisation currently has 1,500 members, and he wants to do a ‘sanity check’, working with the wider membership to figure out what the critical issues are and speak on their behalf to stakeholders, such as central government, CESG, or the public sector in general. 

Having had a long history with Socitm, having previously chaired the South Region and the National Advisory Council, Roberts understands how important it is for all members to contribute to, and engage with, issues and topics.

“There are some key Socitm members who are very engaged and vocal – the same with any membership,” he says. “There is a minority who are very engaged, but I’m keen to find a way of engaging with the silent majority more.”


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