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One of a new breed of next-generation IT chiefs, Omid Shiraji joined Camden Council as interim CIO at the end of January. Previously he held senior technology leadership roles at Working Links and City University London.
Shiraji reflects on his career in a breakout room at Camden’s state-of-the-art offices near King’s Cross in London. He refers to his appointment at the council as a “pleasant accident”.
After leaving Working Links last autumn, he had intended to take a nine-month sabbatical following the birth of his daughter. But an opportunistic phone call from a contact suggested Camden were looking for an interim CIO.
Shiraji accordingly returned to work four months early to take advantage of what he believes is an exciting opportunity. “The role wasn’t just about building something from scratch,” he says. “It gives me the chance to continue the great work that’s already been done.
“People often think local authorities are risk-averse when it comes to delivering services. Camden sits in opposition to that view. The council wants to do as much as it can, and being the CIO in that environment is really exciting.”
Reforming public services
Camden aims to use technology to reform public services. The council’s former CIO John Jackson had already overseen a firm move towards digital transformation. Shiraji is continuing that development and is focused on ways to help the council take advantage of its firm footing.
The great news, he says, is that the building blocks for transformation are already in place. Camden has an open data platform and an associated business intelligence stack. The systems have been used to help the council change its financial planning processes and move towards outcome-based budgeting based on citizen need.
Master data management technology, meanwhile, has been used to help bring key systems together. Shiraji says the integrated view is being applied in key areas such as health and social care in order to provide a multi-agency view of complex resident problems enabling improved interventions. The technology has been put to use in other innovative ways, such as identifying contact details in emergency planning situations and fighting fraud by identifying illegal sub-letting.
As a result, progress has already been made. Shiraji’s role now is to help the IT department to build business benefits on strong technical foundations. “We’re going to develop our digital strategy in public,” he says.
“I’ve set the team the challenge of engaging with other people, both internally and with partners, such as local businesses, other local authorities and residents.”
The format of that engagement is still to be agreed. Shiraji says the council is thinking about ways in which the public could contribute to strategy development. One example might be around data. The council encourages the open use of information, but Shiraji says the data science and analysis skills you might get in a leading-edge business are sometimes lacking internally. As a result, he is keen to look beyond the council’s firewall.
“Those data skills might exist in other parts of London, and we might be able to make use of that capability,” he says. “The joined-up approach gives us the opportunity to both build our own strategy and to develop partnerships. We’re going to start that approach with councils but we’re keen to work with anyone that can make a useful contribution.”
Internet of things
Shiraji also refers to the importance of place and increased connectivity. Camden is exploring the internet of things and the potential role of sensors. Shiraji says the council is aware it cannot afford to place sensors across its built fabric. Partnerships with developers and local business can play a key role in helping the council explore new avenues.
Camden is already working on pilot IoT programmes. For example, the council has invested in Bigbelly bins that remotely monitor remaining capacity, alerting the council when a bin has reached capacity so it can send staff out to empty it. Shiraji expects similar developments elsewhere. With the right strategy in health and social care, for example, he expects council employees to be able to move to preventative care for people with complex needs and help reduce resource-intensive aftercare.
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Shiraji says partnerships can be the key to digital success, particularly through link-ups with major technology providers. Camden is home to thousands of technology professionals. Major employers, such as Google, are moving to the area, and Shiraji is keen to make the most of their proximity.
He says the council must think carefully about how it helps to incubate and grow businesses within the borough. Shiraji’s digital strategy aims to consider how local businesses will connect to other organisations as part of a supply-chain ecosystem. One of the biggest potential plus points is around skills development.
“It’s really important to think about the education and training needs of school and college leavers,” says Shiraji. ”We need to think about the profiles of individuals and businesses, and how any skills gaps or demands link back into training and development. It would be great to create a virtuous circle of business requirements and talented local individuals.”
Shiraji’s attempts to create strong partnerships are not confined to his work within Camden. He is also helping to take the council into a new, shared IT services function with the London boroughs of Haringey and Islington. Shiraji is not blind to the scale of the task.
“It’s a really exciting but very scary thing to do,” he says. “You’ve got to focus on vision and purpose.” Since joining Camden in January, Shiraji has helped create a potential structure for the initiative. A key element of this framework is a cross-council workstream focused on design.
Omid Shiraji, Camden Council
“We’re trying to understand what the three councils do from an operational service perspective, rather than through an IT lens,” he says. “On the back of that understanding comes the design of technology systems. The aim is to satisfy the various and different demands of the three councils. You have to understand specific requirements and the potential areas for compromise.”
Shiraji and his colleagues across the three boroughs are currently at this mapping stage. The aim is to plot the reach of IT across the three councils before looking for common approaches to front-line services. Shiraji expects a number of key benefits, such as deduplication and rationalisation, to emerge.
The mapping stage will provide the basis for more detailed sharing of services during the next few years. There are currently more than 1,500 line-of-business applications running across the three councils. Shiraji says executives across the councils are taking a pragmatic approach to the future of technology systems.
“There’s a recognition that sharing services is a journey of convergence,” he says. “We’re approaching the process thoroughly, and the programme will be implemented in a soft, phased manner. That approach will help minimise disruption and also help ensure the delivery of the right outcomes.”
New systems and services
In the meantime, work on key business systems continues apace. Camden signed a contract to implement Oracle Fusion at the start of the year. The technology will replace the council’s existing finance, human resources, procurement and project systems. Camden, says Shiraji, will be the first local authority to deliver that high scale and scope of back-office functions in the cloud via Oracle Fusion.
The transformation will be significant. He says the council is aware the move to the cloud is a key business change project. Camden is currently working on the plans and processes for implementation. Fusion will be launched in a phased manner during the next few years as a part of a wider smarter working programme which also delivers Office 365 and digital solutions for mail, and enhances the collaborative experience in the council’s meeting spaces.
The phased transition to the cloud forms a key element of Shiraji’s interim role. From refreshing strategy to sharing services, he expects to face a number of challenges as he fulfils the requirements of the role. “The organisation is going through a large amount of business change – absorbing that amount of change in a phased manner is a significant concern and a particular focus for me,” says Shiraji.
Resourcing also remains a challenge, particularly in fast-developing skills areas, such as the Oracle Fusion implementation and the continued use of data science. Shiraji says the effective management of expectations will be crucial. “We can’t afford to let any of these issues divert us from delivering services to citizens and businesses,” he says.
“I’ve been brought in to positively disrupt how we deliver public services. As someone that’s fresh to the organisation and sector, I’m able to see things and ask questions that others might miss. I think I have a talent for spotting where services might be more joined up.”
Shiraji expects to be at Camden until the end of the year and possibly longer. For now, he is continuing to focus on creating a platform for delivering business change. The “hugely enjoyable” role helps Shiraji think about both his long-term career priorities and the position of the CIO more generally.
The next-gen CIO
“There is a real place in local government for next-generation CIOs. These IT leaders have a different way of thinking and can help challenge the status quo. There are already some great things happening in terms of digital leadership in local government. But having more people enter the sector with no baggage or legacy ideas can make a massive difference,” he says.
“Local government organisations have to collaborate. There are pockets of joined-up thinking but there should be more. We, for example, are hosting the Local Digital Coalition, which brings together local authorities across the country to deliver on shared priorities.
“CIOs should look to work with their peers at other organisations, both in and out of sector, and they should encourage their teams to connect and solve citizen problems. IT leaders who are at the bleeding-edge can really help drive a transformation in local government services.”