Jos Creese (pictured) has been CIO at Hampshire County Council for almost 14 years, but will be stepping down in May to pursue something new.
Originally a professional statistician, Creese joined the council around the time when IT was becoming a huge part of government, and is soon to be succeeded by current CTO Simon Blake.
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Using technology to make a difference
“It was just at the time when technology was beginning to have a big impact on the way data was managed in all organisations. I quickly became involved in programming, using the new arrival of PCs in the early 1980s, and discovered that technology was a really exciting way of making a difference,” Creese explains.
Creese was impressed with the level of innovation at Hampshire County Council and was interested in how individuals could make a difference.
“Arguably local government offers some of the most diverse and challenging opportunities around technology,” says Creese.
He points out that being able to take these risks to develop and grow can lead to making a real difference, something that is really important in public sector “as long as you deliver the results”.
At the time Creese first began working with IT at Hampshire County Council there was a lot of innovation in the organisation around networking and shared services, including developing email for across the organisation, mobile and flexible working and running an intranet before they were called intranets.
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“There was quite a lot of innovative thinking about the possibilities of technology beyond simply using it as a back-office function to process finance and HR,” says Creese.
From innovation to digital
Having been the CIO for most of his 14 years at the council, Creese believes the title is exactly that – you can be just a head of IT or you can use the position to make sure IT is present throughout the organisation.
“You can change an organisation to use technology in ways that really transform. That means supporting process change, supporting cultural change and it means new skills – so much more than just the technology,” he says.
Creese believes that for businesses to refocus to deliver IT in a modern society, the IT strategy has to change to move towards a digital model, which will need a different operating model, governance, risk model and skills.
“For most organisations, both public and private sector, it’s quite a difficult transition because you’re moving away from the traditional way of doing business, be it perhaps with lots of self-service and automation and clever IT, but that’s not the same as if you were starting from scratch,” says Creese.
“If you were starting without legacy systems you would probably build it in a completely different way given the opportunities of technology today.”
The modern organisation, without these legacy systems Creese refers to, would build an organisation focused around social media, mobility and flexible working.
“You’d build it around a different type of staff and customer engagement, you’d have a different type of relationship with your suppliers, and that’s the piece of digital that I’m really excited about.
“Hampshire has embarked on a major digital programme and it’s doing that in partnership with Deloitte. It was looking for an interim CDO [chief digital officer] and I wanted to close the gap between the opportunity of technology and the potential to transform,” says Creese.
Challenges of change
Although legacy systems can be a barrier to change, especially in public sector organisations, the biggest challenge is that the business needs to change alongside IT.
“You can improve and change all your IT but, if you don’t change the business, all you’re doing is masking inefficient and outdated working practices with really good technology,” says Creese.
For example, making streamlining and automating back-office processes when they are not needed at all.
But starting from scratch and re-evaluating business processes can be worrying for senior executives, which often leads to resistance.
This level of transformation can be particularly difficult in the public sector, as projects fall under scrutiny more often than most, but research has found the rate of project failure is not much different to the private sector.
You can improve and change all your IT but, if you don’t change the business, all you’re doing is masking inefficient and outdated working practices with really good technology
Jos Creese, Hampshire County Council
“The rate of IT project failures in the public and private sectors is really no different. There are challenges around any IT-enabled programme because of the complexity, so you are going to get issues,” says Creese.
“They don’t usually go wrong because the technology fails, they usually go wrong because of the way you’ve managed things – people and processes rather than technology.”
But Creese points out the public sector is more adept at realising when a project has run its course and needs to come to an end rather than incur more cost.
“Start small, kill off quickly,” he says.
Outsourcing versus in-house
Creese believes his team went through a period where its in-house core IT team was undervalued, and that larger organisations such as government departments and county councils should have a team of professionals who can manage aspects of IT such as development and design.
“The old argument between outsource and insource are a bit out of date,” he says. “It is true that most of the traditional outsourcing models have not worked well in the public sector, but I think we’re seeing the emergence of different styles of partnership working with the private sector that will deliver that.”
He says the advantages of technologies such as cloud can be useful as the system can be adapted, adopted or retired to give greater flexibility.
“It’s no longer a question of do we insource or outsource, you need a hybrid of both and you need a hybrid of private sector systems to include a mix of cloud, and these flexible models that allow you to adapt and adjust components of your partnerships as you go along.”
Government as a platform
During this year's government digital overview event, Sprint 15, the Government Digital Service (GDS) highlighted the advantages of a platform-based future for government services whereby a set of fundamental services can be used as building blocks for similar systems.
“The principals that the GDS are putting out around government as a platform apply equally to local and central government. I think the marketplace for local and central government has got a lot of commonality, but they are not the same,” says Creese.
“There are distinct differences between a big department like Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs and the diversity of what you’ll see in a medium or even small local authority.”
He points out there are some similarities, such as the need for collaboration, management of risk and architectural components, therefore much of the GDS digital strategy could be scaled to a local level.
But because there is no “one size fits all solution” it can be difficult to apply distinctions that will only be found at a local level, such as geography, size and type of organisation.
“There are distinctions that I think are really important and will be reflected in the way IT responds to policy and corporate strategy,” says Creese.