CIO interview: Austerity drives joined-up council IT with Force.com

Peterborough has become a big user of software-as-a-service for council services. We speak to its IT head

Peterborough City Council is in the process of winding down its server room and has taken up a two-year contract to migrate its IT infrastructure onto AWS.

The council is also using Box for document sharing, rather than upgrading its EMC SAN.

But the authority is taking its cloud strategy further. 

Offloading IT infrastructure onto the cloud is not the end of Peterborough's cloud journey for assistant director: Digital Peterborough City Council, Richard Godfrey, who heads up IT at the council. He aims to provide council applications via Salesforce.

"We will move all our applications onto the Force.com platform," he says. 

The council is looking at moving housing services, regulatory services, adult social care and children's services onto Force.com and will use the Salesforce service cloud. Its HR platform, which is due to go live in June this year, is also built on Force.com.

By building council applications on Salesforce, Godfrey says Peterborough will be able to pool data, with Salesforce CRM holding the master data.

But putting data into the cloud raises data protection concerns. Godfrey says: "The rollout [of Box] is being done by the governance team, not by IT. Although I introduced Box, we have the governance buy-in."

Read more on managing IT budgets

Godfrey says the data privacy issues relate to the type of data being stored. "Some people say you can’t use the cloud because it is in America," he adds. "In some cases that may be true, but in a lot of cases it’s not." 

In a service such as highways, the data stored for logging roads, street lights and pot holes is less critical than the data collected by children's services, adult social care and health, for example. "When we go into children's services to roll out Box, we do a risk assessment of what kind of data is being held and what we can store," says Godfrey. 

The assessment also checks the level of security a supplier has been accredited to, to match the accreditation with the type of data being stored.

Beyond the matter of data security in the cloud, Peterborough also needs to consider how many of its core, line-of-business applications that support council services can be moved over to Salesforce.

Godfrey is confident that Salesforce is flexible enough to support the council's SaaS strategy. The authority has partnered with a Salesforce specialist to build council applications on the Force.com platform, which will then be sold  to other councils on the Salesforce applications market.

IT supports austerity measures

Having a single data-sharing platform that can run predictive analytics across data that was previously in silos could help the council to prevent small problems becoming bigger and costlier.

"You can get a much better picture of residents," says Godfrey. "It will allow us to look at whether a noise complaint, for instance, is linked to an adult social care case, which is linked to a housing issue."

But data protection laws can often get in the way, he says. Referring to cases that have highlighted a lack of co-ordination between police, healthcare and social services, Godfrey says: “If the data protection rules are there to protect people, then they are not doing a very good job…a child has died and data protection has stopped you from sharing data.”

In fact, data sharing is arguably the only way councils and other public sector organisations can work through current austerity measures to deliver services.

Godfrey says: "With the cuts we have to make, it is simply not possible for us to wait for things to filter through." Joined-up data, enabling predictive analytics, is one of the ways IT can help the council cope with austerity.

"We are in the same boat as most local authorities, in that we have all had our budgets cut," he says. Rather that looking at making the IT department more efficient, Godfrey wants to focus on the use of IT across the whole council.

"The adult social care bill is £60m," he says. "The IT bill is £6m. So let’s take 10% off theirs, not 10% off mine." This means the council needs to look at how to invest in IT wisely to enable its departments to work more efficiently.

In the past, local authorities undertaking IT-driven transformation programmes would rework internal processes, which Godfrey says would lead to staff cuts. "But in a lot of cases, you ended up with staff who were stressed and overworked because you did not change the systems they were trying to work from," he adds. 

Godfrey's approach is about combining a workforce reduction with technology, systems and the devices that staff use.

For example, the council is deploying Libre Office in place of Microsoft Office if staff do not require the full functionality of the Microsoft suite. "If you only use Word or PowerPoint once a month, then why am I buying you the premium package with MS Office?" he says. "You can get away with a Libre Office or an Open Office, but if you are in finance and are a huge Excel user, then yes, Microsoft Office is the right package for you."

IT as a service broker

As council staff are offered more choice in the applications they use, the ability to share and exchange files in different formats becomes important. The council has systems that require Internet Explorer 7 and others that are not supported on Office 2013. 

Godfrey says the applications should not hinder the council's ability to change the way a department operates. "We are trying to give staff as much flexibility as possible," he adds. "We do not want to be limited by the applications we use."

This represents a change from IT being the department that says "no", to one where Godfrey can support shadow IT in a way that does not limit people's ability to try new software. "For instance, if someone wants to use EverNote, we can make sure it is secure and is connected to the Active Directory," he says.

Godfrey believes local government IT is moving towards becoming a broker of services. "In a few years, you will end up with a team of relationship managers who own the relationship with Salesforce, Box or Amazon," he says. 

Patching and upgrades will be done by the suppliers, but there will also be a core team that will develop and configure the platforms and work with council departments to improve them, says Godfrey.

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