Essex County Council invests £15m in IT to cut costs

Essex County Council is pumping £15m into an IT infrastructure upgrade expected to create efficiency savings of £7m per year, says CIO David Wilde.

Essex County Council is pumping £15m into an IT infrastructure upgrade expected to create efficiency savings of £7m per year. CIO David Wilde (pictured) speaks to Computer Weekly about investing in IT to cut costs.

Essex County Council is at the beginning of a four-year investment programme as part of the council’s new IT strategy, headed by CIO David Wilde. Wilde joined Essex earlier this year following his role as CIO of Westminster Council. Previously the local authority had not invested a great deal in its in-house IT, he said. “The performance wasn’t good, we needed to upgrade to get it fit for purpose.”

“It was a challenge to get the £15m investment in the current climate of austerity, but the savings stack up. Our legacy infrastructure would only cost more in the long-term. It’s very much a case of if you don’t fix the roof then the house will fall down. And it’s not only important for savings to IT, but critical to unlocking more efficiencies across the council around mobile and flexible working,” said Wilde.


Scope of change

The core infrastructure will involve a move to Office 2010, upgrading and consolidating the council's datacentres and the overhaul of networks across the entire county. The council's network estate covers 400 buildings and lightweight laptops will be deployed to allow staff to exploit the benefits of flexible working. “The investment covers the refresh of all our equipment and cost of project management. Around £500,000 investment is also going on training for our IT staff to make good use of infrastructure. And we are beginning to position ourselves for the cloud with systems such as Microsoft Forefront,” Wilde said.

The council currently has around 12,000 user devices. Under the new plans, the total cost of ownership of desktop devices will fall from £1,400 to around £740.

By implementing more efficient systems, the council has already reduced staff from 205 down to 165. Wilde expects the programme to take out £1.6m in costs next year, with savings rising to £3.5m by April 2013 and £7m per year by 2015.


Pacing change

Although other areas of the public sector are beginning to look to the cloud for cost savings – including Wilde’s previous council in Westminster – the situation at Essex meant it was not yet ready for such a move. Wilde said the council will eventually migrate to the cloud to create further savings after 2015, but he added that the infrastructure upgrade was a priority. 

“Getting to the cloud takes time and we need good IT now. We will move to the cloud in measured stages,” he said.

But another key area of change will be moving to a converged voice and data network, which is public services network compliant. “We will be going to market with a PSN-complaint network by late summer or early autumn next year. The procurement process will take two years to get implemented from end to end,” said Wilde.


Moving to a digital model

Further savings are expected to be made by creating a cultural change in the way the council uses technology. Wilde is currently looking at relaxing rules around social networking to encourage staff to use social media tools to improve public engagement. Essex County Council is trialling the use of social media in social care and is keen to develop its use of social networking tools elsewhere.  

“We want to improve communication with the public and teams in the voluntary sector. Clearly there are security concerns, but looking to focus on making sure information is built at the application level, rather than the network level.

“Using Facebook currently requires permission, I would rather have access available as standard and deal with people if they use it improperly,” added Wilde.

As part of its digitisation strategy, the council  intends to develop more mobile apps for transactional services. “People are not so interested in the website, so we are looking at developing apps for things like library services and for booking events in our parks online. Apps are taking over the transactional space and we are keen to embrace that,” said Wilde.

Another area which will realise savings will be through data governance. “We’re getting a really good handle on what information is and where we keep it. We want to use our information to make better decisions and better inform politicians.” Correlating information on school results, the job market, transport links and antisocial behaviour, for example, could help the council decide where to invest to tackle problems such as youth unemployment.

“You can only make decisions when you have a truly holistic view of an area. When you start pulling different information you can really start addressing those things,” he said.

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