Putting digital first: An interview with Camden Council CIO John Jackson

By Sooraj Shah
31 Mar 2014 View Comments
portrait-of-john-jackson

The CIO of the London Borough of Camden, John Jackson, is heavily involved in the council's bid to save money and improve services through its new digital strategy.

Further reading

In a booklet published online, cabinet member for finance Theo Blackwell explained that the council wants to "realise how digital technology and big data can be a way to save money and improve services through co-production, collaboration and challenges by residents and businesses".

That is a mission that Jackson is already working towards.

He has done this by getting rid of older technology at the council and deploying the latest solutions in order to get what he called a "single view" of data.

"You don't want people doing assessments twice, you don't want them keying in information in lots of times, you want to know someone has done something, or about something that's happened, and you want to join up the data streams in order to do that," he told Computing.

This has led to the council joining its information across multiple systems, he said, as well as another project that Jackson labelled an "ambitious business intelligence workstream".

The business intelligence (BI) project involves replacing traditional monitoring systems that Jackson likens to Microsoft Excel and legacy data warehousing tools, with interactive dashboards supplied by software vendor QlikView.

"We're using QlikView to enable us to spot trends and insights that wouldn't otherwise be obvious. The dashboards cover things like regulatory services, children services, housing, planning, building and social care - and it helps us with resource allocation and decision making," he said.

"Previously we had a lot of different BI tools as a council - standard factory-based items like [SAP] BusinessObjects on one system, [IBM] Cognos on another, and [SAP] Crystal Reports on another. This meant we had too many systems, and this needed to be simplified," he added.

But the issue with these tools was also that they were not sufficiently user-friendly, Jackson said, meaning that users would have to ring the IT department if they wanted a specific report or if they wanted to tweak the software itself.

Most importantly for Jackson, though, the QlikView software enabled users to drill down into the data themselves.

"You can start with a very high-level dashboard, compared to a bar chart in a previous generation tool. Although a bar chart looks interesting, that is all it is - you're stuck, whereas the dashboard is interactive, and you can explore what's going on," he stated.

"It is also dead easy to use; a lot of the time you put new systems in that are too clunky and difficult to use, but we wanted a scalable platform that we wouldn't be locked in to using; we wanted the ability to make our BI capability independent of any vendor," he continued.

And the council wants to develop its use of QlikView a step further, by enabling residents to tap into the financial information of the local authority's accounts.

"That's a really scary thought for our director of finance," Jackson joked.

"But in a sense it empowers democracy. It is one thing to have a [publicly available] report, but another to make the transactions of the last 12 months available interactively," he said.

And despite the switch from some of the older tools to QlikView, Jackson maintained that cost was not a determining factor.

"The technology cost-benefits are insignificant in comparison to the efficiency or effective service delivery that these tools are generating," he said.

"The real saving is outside the technology space. It is in service delivery because, for example, within a building control project, the dashboards enable the planners to manage their case loads much more efficiently, spotting trends in effective areas. So the big win is on services running themselves more effectively," he added.

Role reversal

Jackson said that the council has a different set of problems now to those it faced several years ago. Technology used to be about playing catch-up with staff, in many ways. But now, the challenge is for council staff to keep up.

This is why in the council's digital strategy booklet, Blackwell explained that public sector workers need to "up-skill radically" to ensure that users of public services will be able to access what they want 24/7, through a variety of digital means.

So how does the council plan to up-skill its staff?

"If you're coming into the organisation, you are not working on a desktop, you're working on a laptop. You're not using a phone; you'll be using unified communications. If you're on the customer services side then you're going to be using technology that joins up data.

"If you're not digitally competent you're going to struggle," he said.

The council has therefore introduced training sessions. For example, it has made it mandatory that all council staff have to be trained to use Microsoft Lync.

"That layer gets the basics in place - without that we're in trouble," he said.

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