Jos Creese, CIO for Hampshire County Council, is in the middle of completing a major project on the day that Computing interviews him. Called the “Internal Integrated Business Centre”, the service brings together HR, finance, procurement and various other internal functions into a single self-service application accessible over mobile.
The project, which took 12 months to deliver, was developed in tandem with Hampshire’s fire and police services, both of whom will be live on the same platform later this year. Creese calls it “true modernisation by digital means”.
“It gives access to everybody, not just those who work in headquarters,” Creese says. “It empowers staff, supports mobile and flexible working, reduces administration as there’s less need for manual checking, and speeds up transactions, including payments to suppliers.
“Not everybody’s doing this sort of thing yet, but everyone should be to get better value from their IT investment,” he argues.
And the plan is to extend this functionality to the big back-end systems too, with Creese stating that the council’s SAP system could be made “more accessible and intuitive for everyday users who need a few simple functions”.
Besides this project, Creese cites three drivers that determine his priorities in IT: efficiency, service improvement, and productivity and partnership. He explains that the principles of online self-service tick each of these boxes.
“We need to save money in the public sector, so being as efficient as possible through the best use of IT is fundamental. We know we want to improve customer service and meet the growing demand for public services that are better designed around individuals and communities. But how can we do this while also delivering better outcomes? Online self-service can do both, it puts control in the hands of the user. What’s important is to design interfaces so citizens can do what they want, when they want and how they want. It’s better, simpler, and cheaper,” he says.
And this “growing demand” for public services, Creese adds, means that front-line staff need to be even more productive.
“Staff don’t want to be tied to the IT, they want the IT to work for them, with better and more agile services at the point of delivery,” he says.
Creese explains that enabling mobile and flexible working can drive productivity, or it can be a cost saving – but it’s rarely both.
“Flexible working is about the ability to access systems on the move, rather than travelling to a point of presence, and being able to communicate in real time with service users and colleagues. It can deliver efficiency as well as productivity. But some initiatives will save cash, yet not make us more productive, sometimes it’s the other way round. We need to do both, and when investing in technology, you need to be clear which outcomes are desired: productivity, efficiency, service improvement or all three.”
Flexible working at Hampshire County Council means that Creese is able to work in any one of the organisation’s 1,200 buildings which are connected to the Hampshire PSN (Public Sector Network), and have access to the same desktop, or indeed enjoy the same connectivity from home. And this extends to staff, too.
“It’s also possible to use your own device with remote access, so staff can use the devices they’re familiar with when and where they want. More people can then access basic transactions and the information they need using a range of devices from any location. The point is that IT is moving to a new world where the large cumbersome back-office systems lie behind a range of consumer-driven, low cost access devices and tools.”
Having discussed efficiency, and productivity and partnership, Creese expands on the other driver: service improvement. He explains that the focus is user-centric, with services designed around the people who will be using them. All of this fits in with the government’s Digital by Default agenda, but Creese is aware that the rush to digital risks leaving some users behind.
“There’s an argument to ensure we don’t disenfranchise the user in the rush to digital, but if you design services well with a view to ease of access and usability, then it can be extremely effective in empowering people and giving them more, not less, control. It needs to be cheaper, intuitive, trusted and relevant.”
All of which sounds very positive and progressive, but Creese is all too aware of the potential dangers in mobile working, and providing internet access to services – an area in which he sees room for improvement in the private sector.
“Some parts of the private sector have not yet woken up to the potential scale and impact of some of the cyber threats out there. The public sector is often more aware of those risks, and we are closely scrutinised by the press.
“We hold a lot of sensitive personal data and we need to protect the public data we own. Yet the public is not as trusting of the public sector holding their data as we need them to be if we’re going to implement these new digital services – there is a balance to be struck between need for rigour and protection, against the need for flexible and modern operation.”
So does Creese feel that the public sector is getting this balance right?
“We haven’t always. We can err on the side of protecting against every level of risk, but instead we need a base level of security against which we apportion judgement.”
And this over-caution means that the public sector can sometimes miss out on the value of linking data together, or sharing it with partner organisations, Creese argues.
He explains that his organisation won’t link data if the Data Protection Act, PSN Code of Compliance or other policy won’t allow it. But he adds that making those connections, if done safely and securely, could save money and improve services.
“These issues need to be solved nationally, [we need] an accredited framework for sharing information appropriately and safely between ‘blue light’ services and local councils, for example.
Different funding regimes, protocols, standards, governance and processes can make this unnecessarily hard,” he says.
He adds that even with this tendency to be risk averse in the public sector, public perception of local authorities’ ability to safeguard data is unreasonably low.
“The bottom line is ensuring we can maintain and improve public trust in managing their data. Local governments do this quite well, but I don’t think that’s the perception of the public. There are a few high-profile cases of data being lost, but it’s the same in the private sector as well,” he argues.
For Creese, this is a crucial point, because until public trust in the capabilities of the public sector rises, it will not be able to realise the full potential of its digital services.
“If we can’t make the right connections between health, social care, and community services, then we can’t help [people],” Creese says.
And he adds that the public needs to be involved in the choice about how their data is used.
A national debate
“We need a national debate around how to improve digital services without people becoming disenfranchised or unempowered, without feeling we’re doing things without their consent, and this needs policy thinking up front. For example, everyone should have access to their health record in full in my opinion. But how can we do that so it’s safe, and won’t be misused? Once we work that out, then we can make connections, and put the public in control.”
He admits that these links will be technically complex, due to the different systems in his council alone between social care and health, let alone the myriad systems used across the country. But he adds that a key consideration, once the complexities have been ironed out, is that the solution is designed in a transparent way so the public can see that it’s in their interests.
“Consider junk email or late night phone calls from companies, they’re very annoying, [and the result of an] abuse of our data. Generally, the public sector does not do that. We need to shift the mind-set so that if you trust anyone with your data, it’s the public sector, because we take that very seriously.
“Most data breaches are incompetence rather than technology failing. You can put any amount of technology control in place to stop [breaches] happening – so encryption is important for instance, but it’s about the responsibility that individuals have, the guidance they follow, and the common-sense they apply that minimises the risk. It’s down to people at the end of the day.”
But this concern for safeguarding information hasn’t put Creese off the drive for big data, confident as he is in his organisation’s ability to manage it properly. However, he does admit that the level of sophistication necessary to gain enough value from big data to improve public services doesn’t yet exist.
“There’s lots of data out there, but we’re not yet clever enough at making the connections in that data that will provide intelligence to improve service delivery.”
But projects to bring different datasets together from various partner organisations have already borne fruit. One example is the “Hampshire Hub”, a website pooling geographical and other information from various councils and other bodies in and around Hampshire – and administered by Hampshire County Council’s Research & Intelligence unit.
Nevertheless, Creese is worried that big data is being over-sold.
“My concern is that ‘Big Data’ is one of these hype cycle things. It’s fashionable and exciting, but
Tesco knew about it in the 1990s, and they recognised even then how hard it is to analyse the data.
“Joining these systems together and making connections requires data quality and compatibility, and massive processing. Public service organisations need to think know how they want to use this in the future, but [they should] focus on ‘little data’ first – the stuff you know you can use and link in a meaningful way.”
He explains that much as he’d like to make clever connections with data gleaned from social media, he lacks the necessary tools, and adds that the public sector cannot invest time and money into new technologies without a clear plan to generate a return on that investment.
“We can’t afford to look back in two years and wish we hadn’t started. We need to plan carefully to avoid a long trawl of expensive blind alleys,” he states.
But he does see opportunities in the realm of “cognitive IT” – using information that the public sector naturally captures about an individual, such as their library use, and using it to tailor their services.
“Once we know what services you’ve used in the past, we can join that data together – in the same way as the private sector does to sell more and target their advertising – to target our services better,” says Creese.
“If we provide the right service at the right time, it can improve that service and reduce cost. Like providing the right support for a vulnerable child early enough, it’s great for them and it will save [public] money. But will the public want us to do this? It comes back to trust and ensuring the citizen is in control of their data,” he concludes.