CIO Interview: Norfolk County Council's Tom Baker on using data to improve public services

Norfolk County Council's smart city initiative uses the power of data to concentrate on the citizen and smarter public services

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The buzzword “smart city” tends to create images of smarter roads and transport systems, efficient buildings and the connected home. But Norfolk County Council is beginning its smart city initiative by concentrating on the citizen and smarter public services through the power of data.

CIO Tom Baker (pictured) says Norfolk County Council wants to create a seamless experience for its citizens using day-to-day public services.

Using experience gained in setting up a number of smarter city initiatives during his previous role as CIO at Sunderland City Council, Baker has begun an initiative to fast-track Norfolk’s public services offering by creating an information hub to share data across the council and its partner agencies.

Cost savings

The initiative is predicted to help the council save £10m from its IT budget over the next five years and make a major contribution to Norfolk County Council's overall challenge of addressing a £189m shortfall in the next three years.

Baker says councils must learn more about their citizens and use this data going forward, adding that they are better placed than Whitehall because they know their citizens locally.

“We have less and less money to invest, so we’ve got to know that what we’re doing has a real impact on society and people’s lives,” he says.

The public sector is facing huge financial constraints, with local councils looking at a £14bn “black hole” in their finances over the next six years and chancellor George Osborne announcing an additional £25bn of spending cuts.

Norfolk Council has to save £189m over the next three years. “These are pretty big sums of money,” says Baker. “And we’re not alone – district councils have to save cash and the NHS has got to get more efficient.”

He says councils have to start doing things differently, by thinking about the citizen first, understanding return on investment, and trying to break down the siloes of data that currently exist across health, local government and the county council.

“We need information and data at the heart of what we do,” says Baker.

We have less and less money to invest, so we’ve got to know that what we’re doing has a real impact on society and people’s lives

Tom Baker, Norfolk County Council

Smart cities

Baker believes that from the information Norfolk Council gathers, it will be able to understand how to improve transport networks and other services through smart technologies in the future.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s sensors at the roadside or numbers of library users, it’s all data at the end of the day,” he says. “The more data, the richer your understanding of that environment comes. What we’re trying to do is build something long term and sustainable.”

Transformation agenda

Norfolk County Council began a transformation agenda in 2012, starting with a programme called Putting People First – which is what Baker calls a holistic programme. He says there has been a sizeable shift in Norfolk’s approach to citizen data, which “is not evident in any other areas of the country”.

In December 2013, the council signed a £26m Digital Norfolk Ambition contract with HP to provide devices, data sources and a cloud-based information hub in Norfolk over five years.

This new style of IT for public services, which is claimed to be the first of its kind, includes an information hub that aims to unify public services across the county.

The cloud-based information hub is intended to transform the delivery of integrated public services in Norfolk by utilising the economic and social value of big data held by the council and its partners to create a local knowledge economy.

As part of the contract, partners including Vodafone and Microsoft will help to implement the hub, and it will be integrated through HP Enterprise Services Information Management and Analytics Advisory services. HP will manage the virtualisation and migration of the council’s datacentre services to the cloud.

The information hub will help the council to create a local knowledge economy by enabling council workers to work more efficiently. It aims to aggregate data from across public services and provide the council with a single view of citizens’ data. Bringing together the disparate data from across the council and its multiple partner agencies will enable Norfolk County Council to make evidence-based decisions as well as reduce costs from duplication errors.

“It’s about being very much more joined up,” says Baker.

Sharing data and building relationships

The hub aims to provide staff across council services with data held centrally by the council and its partner agencies, such as the NHS. Staff would become more efficient by having access to data which would benefit the individual citizen.

One example Baker gives for how citizens might benefit from the joined-up service is a person may receive fewer visits from council staff, community nurses and social workers, and those visits would be conducted by the same person, helping to build up relationships with the citizen.

“Relationships are vital,” he says. “Lots of different agencies are involved with individual families, but those families may get on better with a school or social worker over their community nurse. It’s a huge opportunity for sharing information to make people more comfortable and to enable all practitioners.”

Bringing together disparate data from across the council and its multiple partner agencies will enable Norfolk County Council to make evidence-based decisions and reduce costs from duplication errors

When citizens call service centres, the call centre advisor should have visibility of previous contact with various services, says Baker. 

“We will redevelop the council customer portal, and hope to seeing a transactional approach to digital services. As time goes on, we will see a much more joined-up approach between us and partners. At the end of the day, people don’t care who provides the service, only the quality of the service,” he says.

But sharing this type of data comes with risks, and Baker's number one worry and priority is to make sure the council adheres to the data protection act. “That’s absolutely vital," he says.

Collaborating with local organisations

Norfolk County Council is using the talent on its doorstep to push forward with the transformation agenda, mainly by collaborating with the university and technology community.

The University of East Anglia is hoping to offer a new big data degree in Information and Management Analytics from September. The council is also helping the university to reassess some of the school’s computing degrees. The graduates from these degrees will then be best placed to go on to work for the council using their knowledge on big data to harness local information.

The council is also working with the tech community in Norwich, which has many active developers. At the last meet up of SyncNorwich, 300 people turned up to share knowledge and information. 

“This shows the vibrancy of the tech community beyond silicon roundabout, because we’re not too far down the road from Cambridge,” says Baker.

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