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CIO interview: Antti Ylä-Jarkko, city of Vantaa, Finland

The CIO of Finnish city Vantaa tells Computer Weekly why the Nordic public sector can lead the way in the use of digital

There is no reason why public sector organisations should not be forerunners in digitisation, according to Antti Ylä-Jarkko, CIO for the Finnish city of Vantaa, who has shaken up the municipality’s IT with cloud tools, open source software and agile development models.

“When I was selected as the CIO [in May 2013], I was given a simple mandate – to take Vantaa from a follower to a leader,” he says.

Ylä-Jarkko has taken this to heart. His first step as CIO was to outsource all basic IT to service supplier CGI. This included information systems, servers, workstations and user support to Vantaa’s 11,500 employees. This enabled IT to shift its focus from basic infrastructure and in-house development to customer-oriented IT.

“We brought customers to the front and centre, both our internal customers and the [220,000] people living in the municipality,” says Ylä-Jarkko. “The focus is on how to create digital services with increasing speed and how to modernise civil servants’ work tools.” 

As a result, Vantaa has come a long way in creating an environment that is no longer tied to a location, device or operating system. All business software has moved to the cloud with Microsoft Office 365, and the city has implemented Microsoft’s Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) to improve mobile access to its systems and tools with a single login.

Now the city is conforming all of its existing systems and services to remote access and device independence. “I see a future where IT services need full independence so anyone can use them anywhere. Remote work can bring huge increases in efficiency and productivity,” says Ylä-Jarkko.

Good CIOs must sell 

While Ylä-Jarkko has worked in IT for almost 20 years, for both the city of Vantaa and the Finnish National Board of Education, he started his career as a teacher – the training for which he believes cultivates many of the skills needed by a modern CIO.

“I know a thing or two about motivating people. Also teachers are planning machines,” he says. “One of the core skills of a CIO today is the ability to market and sell. My educational background means I’m good at presenting and speaking.”

These skills were put to the test during Vantaa’s move to outsourcing. About 15 of the city’s IT experts moved over to CGI as part the process, while the remaining 40 staff members had to adapt to the new customer-oriented approach and different operational models.

Ylä-Jarkko acknowledges that such transformations are never easy, but says clear communication can help smooth the process: “I told my team from day one what Vantaa aimed to do. I invested a lot in communicating my vision for the city in 2020. I believe today most people are proud of the work we do [towards digitisation].”

A digital city

The transition has been also helped by the introduction of an agile development process. While IT has had to take more responsibility over digital services, the department now works more closely with Vantaa’s various business units.

Gone is the process of using the IT department to acquire off-the-shelf software. Instead, units nominate a product owner to participate in the whole development process.

According to Vantaa, the development process is user-driven Scrum project management. The design process is first completed with the users, then the project moves to Scrum. Any additional competence is outsourced to IT partners, such as programmers or service designers.

Currently, this model is being used in a two-year project to digitise Vantaa’s land, building and environment services.

“The customer and the developers sit together in the same office space and are in constant communication. Big projects are divided into small pieces, which improves the success rate and visible results are achieved faster,” says Ylä-Jarkko. “[IT] operates like its own small company.”

“I see a future where IT services need full independence so anyone can use them anywhere. Remote work can bring huge increases in efficiency and productivity”

Antti Ylä-Jarkko, city of Vantaa

At the same time, Vantaa has invested in improving citizen involvement. In addition to open workshops, the city blogs about its digital development and invites anyone to comment and share their views on upcoming services.

In early 2016, the city launched its Oma Vantaa (My Vantaa) platform, where in future citizens will access all the city’s digital services, manage application processes and get advice. Ylä-Jarkko says Oma Vantaa’s first digital service – debt counselling – has improved efficiency by about 50% as people no longer need to queue on phone lines. 

“Oma Vantaa is the embodiment [of the benefits of digitisation] and all new services will be created under it,” says Ylä-Jarkko. “The typical way was to buy hundreds of separate services, but now we do things differently. All citizen services will be found in one place.”

Vantaa’s future will take time

Ylä-Jarkko hopes his work with Vantaa will prove influential in opening up the wider Finnish public sector IT. To this end, the city has made all source code open and available for other cities and municipalities to use. 

“We aim to build a model where everybody won’t need to start from scratch,” says Ylä-Jarkko. “We hope others will take note and, similarly, we can tap into their ideas.”

Ylä-Jarkko has already presented this idea to several colleagues. While some have been open to the idea, others worry it is too far away from their established processes. The latter attitude frustrates Ylä-Jarkko. “Local officials are often too comfortable with the established structures and afraid to question them,” he says. 

Read more Nordic CIO interviews from Computer Weekly

Ylä-Jarkko wants to speed up Vantaa’s rate of cloud adoption. The tools are ready, he says, but some employees have been cautious in transitioning to new systems such as cloud storage or instant messaging. 

To tackle this, Vantaa has launched training sessions and a “cloud agent” programme. Cloud agents are Vantaa citizens who have faced long-term unemployment. The city takes them on and trains them to use its cloud services. They then work in the field and offer assistance to any city employee who needs cloud guidance.

Such schemes excite Ylä-Jarkko, who believes the future of employment will go hand-in-hand with the evolution of IT. “We could soon live in a world where people have a Monday job, Tuesday job and Friday job, and IT needs to be able to enable these new ways of working,” he concludes.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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