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CIO interview: Dylan Roberts, CDIO, Leeds City Council

After 15 years leading technology in Leeds, Dylan Roberts is building a digital ecosystem for the entire region, even looking at how digital services can help extend life expectancy for local people

Dylan Roberts, chief digital and information officer (CDIO) at Leeds City Council, describes his job as “awesome”. That’s quite a claim for anyone, never mind someone who’s spent more than 15 years working for the same organisation. Yet Roberts says his job just continues to get better all the time.

“I’ve been lucky enough to have a fantastic sponsor in terms of my chief executive,” he says. “We’re doing some awesome stuff. All the programmes we’re running can be a bit overwhelming at times, but it’s fantastic to be able to facilitate better outcomes for citizens. I’m privileged to hold a position as CDIO that gives me a view across all lines of business.”

Roberts joined the council in 2003, originally as head of ICT, having previously led technology for Denbighshire County Council. He assumed the title of CIO at Leeds in 2013 and took up his current role of CDIO in June 2016. He now holds a wider city role and is accountable for delivery of business outcomes across multiple areas, including healthcare programmes and smart city initiatives.

“I’m in my 20th year as a CIO and the role has changed fundamentally during the past 15 years,” says Roberts, looking back on his time at Leeds. “My role and responsibilities have shifted significantly – but, in many ways, I’ve been fortunate to have shaped my role as much as I would have liked with the support of my chief executive.”

Roberts says that on joining the council in 2003, he found a very traditional, delivery-focused IT organisation. The technology department was inwardly focused and concentrated on delivering efficient IT at the best possible cost. “Workers simply needed to able to come into work in the morning and know their PC was going to work,” he says.

During the following five years, the emphasis of his CIO position shifted toward being a transformation role, which was still inwardly focused, but centred on how to apply information and technology to create new efficiencies. Examples include the use of automation across businesses processes and finding new ways to help the public transact with the council electronically.

Further change came with a prolonged period of government-enforced austerity after the global economic downturn of 2008, which led to cost pressure on UK public sector organisations. Roberts says Leeds City Council has seen a 60% reduction in government grants over the past decade – which necessitated a new tactic.

“Local government in Leeds has shifted and it’s about enabling better outcomes for people and business, rather than an inward focus on service efficiency”

Dylan Roberts, Leeds City Council

“The traditional approach to IT was paternalistic and focused on the delivery of services to the public,” he says. “But if your resources are cut by that much, and if there’s an exponential increase in demand for services at the same time, you have to flip the model.

“And, therefore, local government in Leeds has shifted and it’s about enabling better outcomes for people and business, rather than an inward focus on service efficiency.”

Roberts says his role as CDIO is all-encompassing and his influence spans multiple organisations. His appraisal, when it comes to judging leadership success, is based on his ability to deliver better outcomes across a range of city-focused areas, including health and wellbeing, housing standards, travel and transport, and full-fibre connectivity to the region.

“The role I have now is nothing like the position I held when I joined the organisation,” says Roberts, who also chairs the local CIO Council, which includes IT leadership representatives from across the region. The CIO Council assesses and attempts to influence wider government strategy in areas such as industry, economy and cyber security.

Creating lasting benefits for citizens

Since becoming CDIO at Leeds, Roberts points to a number of key achievements, including creating the “city as a platform” approach, which aims to deal with the increase in demand for public services at the same time as budget cuts. The approach ensures service delivery is focused on outcomes that are enabled by the effective use of digital, data and technology in communities.

Under Roberts’ leadership, Leeds has become the UK’s fastest-growing digital ecosystem outside London. The ecosystem includes a range of technology partners, such as Canon, and public service providers, including third-sector parties, independent providers, community groups and charities. These groups draw on the city’s digital approach to deliver services that meet people’s individual needs.

Last year, Roberts also led a successful bid for the Yorkshire and Humberside region to become a Local Health and Care Record Exemplar (LHCRE). These exemplars will each receive up to £7.5m over two years to put in place an electronic shared record that makes information about people instantly available to everyone involved in care and support.

In the case of the Yorkshire and Humberside region, the successful bid involved the engagement, coordination and agreement of 86 organisations. Work on the LHCRE continues and Roberts recognises that this, and his work around the digital ecosystem, are significant achievements. Yet he believes his biggest triumph over the past two years is the focus on citizen outcomes.

“There are many achievements, but that’s the key,” he says. “And it’s something that should not be underestimated – the delivery of citizen-centred outcomes is something that you can’t do as individual organisations.”

Using digital to include everyone

Roberts gives an example of a project that is just beginning. Leeds City Council owns 57,000 council houses, including 116 blocks of flats. This council accommodation is located in the some of the poorest and most deprived areas of the UK. Roberts says the aim is to use digital to enable better outcomes.

“We’ve been able to convene partners connected to those flats,” he says. “Numerous community organisations engage with the people who live in the accommodation. When we run our digital literacy programme, 32% of the people in those flats are digitally excluded and aren’t online.”

The digital initiative pulls in professionals from a broad range of organisations, says Roberts. This includes funding from the Cabinet Office’s GovTech Catalyst challenge programme, which helps the public sector to identify and work with cutting-edge technology firms around developments in home-management technologies, such as damp and heat monitoring. Roberts says these automated smart-home technologies can help vulnerable citizens to reduce their bills.

Digital inclusion is a hugely important area,” he says. “As a standard part of our offering as a council, we believe everyone in Leeds has to be digitally literate. We don’t train people directly on how to get online. We train lots of people in voluntary and third-sector organisations, who are engaging with people in housing on a day-to-day basis, on how to get online.”

Connecting the community ecosystem

Further work around digital inclusion continues. The council is looking to secure funding from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to help push fibre connectivity to homes. Other priorities include accessing funding to help schools and students become connected. Roberts says his job is to lead developments in this area.

“The CDIO role is almost a convening role – we need to create better outcomes,” he says. “What we’re able to do is to convene different stakeholders from across the city, and different national funding pots, in common outcomes. We’re connecting the community ecosystem – and technology has a massive role to play.”

Roberts gives the example of St George’s crypt in Leeds, which provides food for homeless people. The council has established one of the biggest tablet-lending schemes in the UK in the crypt.

People who work at the crypt receive tablet computers, are trained in how to get people online, and these specialists then help homeless individuals use the web for individualised requirements, such as bidding for council housing, applying for Universal Credit, and connecting with family members.

“Everyone can be engaged through a digital platform,” says Roberts. “We’re pulling together multiple strands.”

Roberts has a range of key priorities for the next few years. These include delivering full-fibre connectivity to 1,180 public sector endpoints across the Leeds metropolitan area. As an LHCRE exemplar, Roberts also had to deliver the Yorkshire and Humber digital care record programme – and that’s no straightforward task.

He says it’s important to be both practical and realistic in terms of expected outcomes for the initiative. The care record partnership involves 80-plus organisations with a range of healthcare systems, and the aim is to develop what Roberts calls “a system of systems” for the region.

Although something similar has already been established in the city of Leeds for the past five years, this integrated infrastructure for the region will give professionals in health and care organisations secure access to joined-up citizen records.

“This will enable us to create a longitudinal and combined care record for as many as seven million people,” says Roberts.

“We are in the process of doing that right now – and we’re doing it through open standards. We will have dealt with all the information governance and data ethics, and we’ll have a record that will enable new knowledge. We can point artificial intelligence at that anonymised data, so, from a research point of view, we can develop significant new insights.”

Roberts says this work is crucial because life expectancy varies significantly across the region, by as much as 12 years. “If, through better data analytics around our population, we can start to design personalised medicine plans, these targeted interventions could help people in the poorest areas enjoy at least five more healthy, independent years of life,” he says.

“By the end of March 2021, I’d like to be in a position to say that we have that longitudinal care record and that the platform will allow us and research organisations to develop new capabilities. As a result of that work, I’d hope by 2030 or 2035 that we’re getting to a point where we’re providing those five extra, healthy years to those who have a lower life expectancy right now.”

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