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CIO interview: Tonino Ciuffini, Warwickshire County Council

Warwickshire County Council’s CIO, Tonino Ciuffini, talks about his love for the job, cloud and information sharing

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Tonino Ciuffini has spent more than 30 years working for Warwickshire County Council. He can consider his three decades’ work as an IT professional as a job well done. Ciuffini has helped the council to embrace IT-led change, yet there is still transformative work to be completed. 

“I love what I do,” he told Computer Weekly. “I relish that we try to take advantage of technology and apply that IT in a way to make the lives of the people of Warwickshire better through the services we provide.” 

Ciuffini joined the council in 1985 as a graduate trainee. He moved through the organisation internally and took on new roles every few years – eventually moving into senior management and becoming the head of information assets in 2006.  

“You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time,” says Ciuffini, reflecting on how the council continues to support his aims of using innovation to improve the lives of its citizens.

“I came through the industry at a time when IT was expanding. I’ve been delighted with how my career has progressed.”

Ciuffini is currently working on three priority areas – the cloud, pragmatic partnerships and information sharing – which he says will be key in helping the council to deliver on its strategic aims during the next few years.

Here, Ciuffini talks about progress across those three areas and how the delivery of digital services is essential for success as a modern CIO in local government.

Embracing the cloud

Ciuffini believes passionately in shared services. Rather than running hundreds of different systems for the same process, he says public organisations should look to use best practice in on-demand IT. One of his key developments during the past few years has been the council’s adoption of Google

The council started investigating a potential change to its email system in 2011. Ciuffini had at the time recently been appointed as local government representative on the G-Cloud board

He was keen to explore how users could share resources, rather than using multiple and separate installations of the same application. He used his experiences from working with senior people at the Cabinet Office to inform the decision making process in Warwickshire. 

“That interaction provided me with deep involvement, so that we could talk seriously about the issues we faced,” he says.

“Instead of just thinking in terms of policies, we could think about real issues. Right from the start, the council was prepared to take on some of the challenges and risks of the cloud.” 

The council took what Ciuffini recognises was a trailblazing decision and decided to implement Google Apps through 2012.

The organisation’s use of external services was almost a test case scenario for wider government. Lots of other local councils subsequently followed suit. 

“For me, public cloud is the ultimate shared service,” says Ciuffini. “Our executives were able to think carefully about whether data is more at risk with an expert service provider or in a small datacentre in a local council.

“We took a practical stance, and we’ve been able to see some tremendous benefits in terms of using the cloud.” 

Key plus points, suggests Ciuffini, are price and productivity. An organisation paying for Google Apps is provided with full access to the firm’s cloud-based applications, including Hangouts for video messaging.

Ciuffini says broad access to these kinds of services allows employees to collaborate with each other on mobile devices from any location.

Taking a pragmatic approach 

Such business benefits mean Ciuffini is a big advocate for the cloud. However, he also recognises that external service provision is far from the only option when it comes to running local government IT.

While some organisations become obsessed with decisions over outsourcing or insourcing, Ciuffini is proud of Warwickshire’s pragmatic approach. 

“You need to use people and expertise in the best possible way,” he says. “A large proportion of our IT contracts are with external suppliers. But we use internal specialists, too. We’ve got a balance and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to use that approach and demonstrate benefits to the rest of the council.” 

Ciuffini is also keen to draw on the best practice advice of other organisations. “I passionately believe in shared services,” he says, referring back to his involvement in national initiatives during the previous decade. Ciuffini helped lead early e-government projects and he continues to back attempts to share knowledge nationally. He is also keen to make further progress at the local level. 

“We’ve had shared systems in a number of key areas, including at the datacentre level, and we’re keen to do more,” says Ciuffini. “Local government organisations have to share more. There’s real potential for savings and efficiencies.” 

Being a realist, however, is also crucial. Ciuffini recognises that key challenges remain for local government CIOs who are looking to share services. “It’s very hard because people often want ownership,” he says. 

“Partnership is about giving up control, rather than keeping hold. But we’ll carry on looking at key areas where we can work with partners. If we can contribute to that method of working, then what can be potentially achieved is really exciting.” 

Sharing information to improve service quality 

One of the key areas for progress will be the use of application programming interfaces (APIs). Ciuffini says the Government Digital Service (GDS) is undertaking crucial work in this area. 

He refers to the recently launched government identity assurance scheme, GOV.UK Verify. Warwickshire is helping GDS explore the use of digital services and APIs, and Ciuffini is keen for the work to expand. 

“We’re trying to use open standards as a way of delivering on our strategy,” he says.

“If we can find a more efficient way of delivering technology, it means we can use that money to help protect front line services. If citizens can deal with the council at a time that’s convenient for them, then that provides benefits for the people that live in Warwickshire.” 

Ciuffini says the council is in regular talks with suppliers. APIs are crucial to the council’s plans for the future use of digital technology, yet many suppliers still have work to do in this area. Progress will be key, as Ciuffini believes APIs can help public sector organisations to share information effectively and securely.

“It’s a big priority for us. The more we can get these organisations working together, the better it will be for citizens,” he says.

Headway in regards to APIs is already being made. Ciuffini refers to a system prototype for disabled drivers applying for blue badges.

The more we can get public sector organisations working together, the better it will be for citizens
Tonino Ciuffini, Warwickshire County Council

Under present operating conditions, employees at the council ask applicants to provide evidence of entitlement from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). However, Ciuffini aims to use APIs to create a more efficient system. 

Citizens applying for blue badges will arrive at the council and asked whether they give their consent to a system check for entitlement. With consent for data sharing, workers at the council will be able to use APIs to search DWP data and produce instant evidence of entitlement.

Ciuffini says the council hopes to move to the beta stage of the system soon. 

“We’re talking with GDS about taking the project to the next stage. We need to build our systems in a production environment, it needs Verify to become live across local government and we need the DWP platform – or any other technology we’re working with – to be ready to receive us,” he says. 

“But across all these concerns, there is a keenness to deliver results. There’s a series of other areas where we can use APIs too. If we can run the service effectively for blue badge provision in Warwickshire, the technology can be used across other councils and public sector organisations.”

Delivering with a personal touch

Ciuffini recognises that, despite the power of modern IT, many local government services still require a personal touch. Technology, says Ciuffini, must be used to help develop the strength of the relationship between local government workers and customers.

“We want to continue to use advances in IT to help our staff work more flexibly,” he says.

“We need to make work mobile so our employees can work productively in the places that are best for our citizens. That means wireless access has to be a key priority for us, especially in a rural area such as Warwickshire.”

The digital transformation, therefore, will continue apace. The scale of change facing all CIOs is such that Ciuffini believes the IT leadership role is now in an almost constant state of flux.

Senior job titles in the industry reflect that trend, such as the change in emphasis in IT leadership positions from CTO to CIO and now to CDO. Yet Ciuffini says executives should not get hung up on job titles.

“Modern IT leaders should be more interested in what they deliver and achieve. I spent the first 25 years of my job persuading people how they could use technology better. When I joined Warwickshire, we used to have a one-day course for joiners on how to use a PC,” he says.

“The consumerisation of IT has democratised technical knowledge and now I spend more of my time telling people how to use technology safely.

“The role of the IT leader is all about how to exploit the benefits of IT in a safe environment. That’s a great place for the modern CIO to be.”

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