Interview: Sander Kristel, CIO, Staffordshire County Council

The CIO of Staffordshire County Council says virtualisation and application development has improved services for residents and staff

Sander Kristel had a varied career in the public and private sector before taking on the role of CIO at Staffordshire County Council. From the hotel industry and banking, through to working for the Equal Opportunities Commission, he knew a challenge when he saw one and jumped at the chance of taking over IT at a council in need of rejuvenation.

That was five years ago – now the experienced CIO has implemented a lot of changes when it comes to IT, taking a forward-thinking approach to tackle age-old problems. He told Computer Weekly about his work.  

“At the time, Staffordshire was really in need of a consistent approach to technology and to look at it from a customer perspective,” said Kristel.

He claimed all the separate departments within the council had their own IT teams and there was little cooperation between them, which created a “disjointed environment”.

“This also [led to] budgetary issues, where IT had an overspend but the council didn’t know what on,” he said.

As a result, one of Kristel’s main priorities was putting a governance structure in place to stop IT departments working alone and creating separate projects unbeknownst to the central management team.

“What was most important was implementing that governance structure, and it killed off the majority of projects IT was allegedly working on,” he said.

The desktop environment had not been invested in for years, so we looked to virtualisation and Citrix

Sander Kristel, CIO, Staffordshire County Council

Virtualising the IT infrastructure

The next task to tackle was the ageing infrastructure. It was 2007, and server virtualisation was only just beginning to sneak its way into the enterprise, let alone the public sector, but Kristel believed this was the right strategy for the council datacentres.

“At the time, it was very early days for virtualisation [especially in the public sector], but we needed the most flexible and redundant solution as big council projects need an agile server environment,” he said.

The first choice of vendor five years ago was Fujitsu, which provided Staffordshire with the blade server environment. However, Kristel told Computer Weekly the council is about to change it all to Cisco’s UCS portfolio.

“As with all IT buys, we looked at both cost and the quality, but we also knew some of our partners were using Cisco and trusted the systems,” he said.

But it wasn’t just the datacentre that needed revamping. Kristel next looked to wave his virtualisation wand over the desktops.    

“The desktop environment had not been invested in for years, so we looked again to virtualisation and Citrix,” he said. “Citrix again was a combination of the quality on offer and pricing, plus with Citrix it is a well-known and trusted company.”

Since the roll-out began, almost 40% of PCs across the council have been exchanged for thin clients, and Kristel claimed one of the major benefits was the ability to utilise the software for flexible working methods.

“We have just opened a new headquarters in the centre of Stafford which amalgamates 17 of our previous council buildings,” he said. “In the building, we now have six or seven desks for every 10 workers so both hotdesking and homeworking are encouraged.

“We are in the early days when it comes to bring-your-own-device [BYOD], but we are about to pilot a BYOD scheme for employees. We carried out a small-scale trial with iPads for senior managers, and we found a significant reduction in paperwork being printed, which was excellent.”

Although this was exciting from a technology perspective, it meant a lot of upheaval for council employees.

 “There were issues to start with for employees, as people are wary of change,” said Kristel, “but it has now been fully taken on board.”

Council-funded mobile applications

With the backbone of the IT in place and new methods being adopted by his employees, Kristel has now turned to even more innovative projects to improve the experience of Staffordshire’s key workers and residents.

His current passion is for mobile applications, and the first to be trialled in the region has been a resounding success.

“The app is called Patchwork,” said Kristel. “Simply put, it is a clever contact list particularly for public sector use, and it connects frontline staff working with what we would term troubled families.”

The CIO said the biggest issue these workers were facing was finding out who was involved with each family or address – “It could be the police, a social worker, a health worker, or any of the other Staffordshire agencies.”

We don't want [too many] apps, but we need to engage people, and [apps do that]

Sander Kristel, CIO, Staffordshire County Council

By using the app, it is simple to view who is involved with which family, when they have visited, and any other necessary information, all contained in the app but stored securely in line with privacy regulations.

Rather than just deploying the app, Kristel and his team took an extra step by putting the council’s own money into the development process.

Patchwork came up with the concept and approached Lichfield District Council with it. "We decided to invest £125,000 into the company, with help from the West Midlands Innovation Partnership,” he said. “The app company [based in London] had a very modern approach and worked closely with the people on the ground to get it right.”

Luckily, the investment has paid off, and both Kristel and the app users are really happy with its performance.

“I mean this in a good way, but the app is underwhelming because it is so simple,” he added. “We piloted it in Lichfield, and it has been a great success. Now Version 1.0 is being developed and should roll out in Staffordshire in September this year. Other councils, such as Brighton and Hove, have also got involved and are testing the app.”

Now, the council is looking to create a customer-facing application in conjunction with Coventry University.

“It is a game used for self-assessment so residents can see individually if they need help,” said Kristel.

He claimed that by enabling residents to interact with the technology, it could be easier for them to determine which services they need from the council, as well as save the costs of individual social workers doing the assessments.

Although the apps are getting great feedback, the IT department at the council is aware of the extra pressure they could come under if the number were to get out of control.

“We don’t want apps all over the place – we want to be able to manage them and keep an oversight,” said Kristel. “However, we need to engage people, and this way is working.”

Innovative thinking at Staffordshire County Council

The work Kristel has done at Staffordshire County Council is clearly innovative, and he is taking the type of chances you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a public sector organisation. But it seems Staffordshire is different from that popular misconception, and Kristel was keen to sing the praises of its staff.

We will be looking at sharing datacentres in the future

Sander Kristel, CIO, Staffordshire County Council

“The public sector is significantly changing, but councils in particular are becoming much more forward thinking,” he said. “Senior people within our organisation and the Lichfield Council are starting to understand the different types of business model, and are putting forward innovation.

“The world is changing so we have to change with it.”

So what is next on the roadmap for Kristel and Staffordshire County Council? Last week, a partnership between Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire was announced, which will see the three councils work together to enable more shared services across the counties.

“ICT is involved [heavily] and we are scoping out what we can do together, such as sharing procurement, sharing systems, and the likes of the PSN,” said Kristel.

“We wouldn’t look at sharing datacentres [yet], as there are a lot of quick wins we can get on with first, but we will definitely be looking sharing datacentres in the future.”

We will be sure to check back in with Kristel and see how all his projects fair, as well as what new innovations he has up his sleeve for 2013.

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