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CIO interview: Mark Gannon, director of business change and information, Sheffield City Council

Like many organisations, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated digital change in Sheffield, and its IT leader is looking to build further on that momentum

Mark Gannon, director of business change and information solutions at Sheffield City Council, took the long route into technology leadership. He completed a degree in housing policy management and a PhD in housing policy. His first job involved working with an online lettings platform – and from there, he started climbing the IT management ladder.

“I’m not a techie by trade – and it’s helped me over the years to be the interface between the business and tech people. I don’t need to know how to configure IP addresses, but I need to know the potential impact if something goes wrong with one,” he says.

Gannon joined Sheffield City Council in June 2017. In his role, he is responsible for IT management, business change and supporting organisational development. Having previously served as CIO at Nottingham City Council, Gannon joined Sheffield after a stint in consultancy.

“I really enjoyed that role, but the work-life balance in consulting is pretty poor. I was away from home a lot,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to leave consultancy, but this job popped up and it was in Sheffield, which is where I live. The way the job was described ticked all the boxes for me.”

Gannon says he was particularly interested in the external focus of the role. While he’s managed IT services for councils before, the inherent business-change aspects of the role – and the ability to transform services internally and for Sheffield residents – appealed strongly.

“It’s not just about the council – it’s about how we make Sheffield more of a digital city. It’s about taking advantages of, and joining up, some of the great work that happens across the city. And I absolutely love it as role,” he says.

Transforming the organisation and the city

Sheffield is the third largest local authority in England and home to two leading universities. As such, Gannon believes the city has a platform from which to create a bright future. Famed for its history of steel production, he believes it will be soon be recognised for its digital prowess.

“Sheffield is on the cusp of greatness. It was world-leading during the industrial revolution and I think we’re probably at a similar inflection point again because we’ve got digital industries, educational tech and advanced manufacturing. There’s some absolutely phenomenal stuff taking place here”

Mark Gannon, Sheffield County Council

“Sheffield is on the cusp of greatness,” he says. “It was world-leading during the industrial revolution and I think we’re probably at a similar inflection point again because we’ve got digital industries, educational tech and advanced manufacturing. There’s some absolutely phenomenal stuff taking place here.”

Gannon says the council is keen to make the most of this innovation. The organisation encourages its IT professionals to “get on and try stuff”. There’s a sense of ambition among its workforce, which means the council provides a great place to work. Gannon has made the most of this ambition during the past three years.

“I’ve been allowed to make lots of changes and improvements,” he says. “We had a big contract with Capita, which we don’t have anymore. We’ve invested in improving our technical architecture and we’ve been rebuilding the technical infrastructure from the ground up for the past three years. I like to be doing stuff; I like to be making an impact – and here, in Sheffield, I’ve been given the opportunity to do that and work with loads of great people.”

Building a platform for change

For the past few months, much of Gannon’s time has been focused on helping the council deal with the coronavirus pandemic. He says preparations provided a “shot in the arm” for the organisation, which went from having very low remote-access provision – where it could manage about 500 people online – to having to service over 6,000 users.

“It’s short-circuited quite a lot of work and shown that people can work remotely. It’s kind of cut through that argument overnight, so that’s a positive really,” says Gannon, who adds that his IT team’s effort during this period have been absolutely phenomenal. “I’m so lucky to have such a good IT team.”

His tech function stood up a new Microsoft Azure-based remote desktop service for home workers, which included deploying about 60 applications. The team also rolled out 3,000 Windows 10 laptops. Gannon says the plan was to roll out these laptops this year anyway as part of its Technology 2020 programme, which aims to deliver a digitally enabled council through the exploitation of existing and new technology.

As well as helping to speed up the deployment of technology, Gannon says the pandemic has helped to highlight the importance of digital channels as it’s not been possible for citizens to visit the council’s offices. He says elected members now understand the benefits of digital in a way that they might not have previously.

“That’s not a criticism of them – it’s just shone a light on and demonstrated that the majority of our customers want to access services online. I think that’s going to be a key priority going forward,” he says.

Creating a new model of service delivery

Gannon says one of his crucial achievements since joining the council has been the implementation of the Technology 2020 strategy, which was approved in June 2018, along with the investments to deliver it. Gannon says delivering to that strategy has involved making a step change in the council’s IT environment.

“We’d got to a position where we’d probably under-invested in our tech estate,” he says. “So we had old software and hardware, and the digital skills were probably not where they should have been. We’ve made a very significant investment and the executive team in the organisation has been really supportive.”

The council has, for example, rolled out Windows 10 laptops across its estate. “That’s not particularly sexy, but it makes a massive difference for the organisation,” says Gannon. The council has also invested in Microsoft Office 365 and an Azure cloud-based infrastructure. This digital transformation process has involved insourcing IT services following the end of an outsourcing agreement with Capita.

“We now have a cloud-first strategy,” says Gannon. “We’ve been moving lots of our legacy applications onto software-as-a-service platforms. It’s like a bowl of spaghetti, where you’ve got a big, legacy contract with a big, complex provider like Capita. We’ve been trying to untangle all those bits of spaghetti, and we’ve still got some of that to do, but we’ve done the bulk of that work. Really, that’s about giving us control of our own destiny.”

Read more public sector CIO interviews

More generally, Gannon says he’s “not a big fan of kitchen-sink outsourcing”. Across his career in local government, he’s managed outsourced contracts with a range of external providers. He’s never seen an example where it’s provided a really effective model for IT service delivery.

“The target for each organisation is entirely different. They diverge, that’s just the reality. Part of that switch for us has involved working with our commercial team, who’ve been excellent around helping us to build a roadmap, look at our strategic suppliers and how best to build relationships with them,” he says.

“So we took the IT service back. Part of what we’ve been doing the past year is working with the IT staff who’ve come back from Capita, to give them the kind of skills they need for this new world, because their skills have been based on that legacy relationship.”

Putting digital at the heart of change

When it comes to using technology to enable business change, Gannon says his team has focused on some significant initiatives, including a customer experience programme powered by an investment in digital systems, such as customer relationship management technology from Verint, to help deliver new data-led services to Sheffield citizens.

“Our Technology 2020 programme had a big focus on customer performance and business intelligence. In the past three years, we’ve made huge progress on that. I’ve also been working with my colleagues in HR on the cultural elements, so it’s been a busy time,” he says.

With the Technology 2020 strategy enacted and the lessons learned from managing IT during the coronavirus crisis, Gannon can now start to think about how he will use technology to help shape how the council serves citizens. Two years from now, he would expect digital services to be part and parcel of everything the organisations provides.

“Digital must just be seen as a core capability of the organisation,” he says. “The approach that we’re taking to business change is to identify and build those core capabilities across the organisation. We want to cut across organisational boundaries because generally they’re not that helpful.”

Gannon also wants to ensure that the council’s decision-making processes are driven by useful insight. That will include making the most of business intelligence and cross-organisational information from the Office of Data Analytics for Sheffield, an initiative that aims to bring together data from the city’s public bodies to help solve key challenges in areas such as transport and social care.

These kinds of far-sighted programmes, suggests Gannon, will help the council to overcome some of the challenges that are often faced by public sector CIOs. He believes many of his peers still face significant barriers in the form of legacy IT and supplier lock-in. Gannon says the best way to deal with these concerns is to push digitisation now.

“For CIOs, it’s going be difficult if they haven't already started the journey to convince their organisation to invest lots of money in tech and digital at a time when, maybe, we actually need more social workers,” he says, referring to the post-Covid challenges facing public bodies.

“So there is a real selling job for CIOs – they’re going to have understand how to hit the mark with a message in terms of getting their investment. I think we’re quite lucky in Sheffield in that we‘ve done that and there is already an understanding.”

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