As the UK claws its way out of recession, some regions are benefitting more than others. While the percentage of those claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance has fallen to 2.5 per cent nationally, in the North-East it stands at 4.2 per cent, while in County Durham it’s 3.5 per cent.
The ways in which IT can be used to close this gap is the main preoccupation of Phil Jackman, head of ICT services at Durham County Council. He says his top priority is using IT as the vehicle to improve the prospects of the people of Durham. Whether tackling unemployment by encouraging technically skilled businesses to enter (or not leave) the area, or using IT to enrich the lives of citizens, Jackman believes technology is the gateway to success for the area.
“The biggest issue for us is the position of the region in the global economy,” Jackman tells Computing.
“The North-East has the lowest gross value added, it has high unemployment, high deprivation, and these are issues with which ICT has to somehow help.
“If you look at what we do day to day, the first thing is to keep the lights on. But that’s taken as read. The real thing is to add value from there, and ask how we can use the technology we have to improve the way people rely on us.”
Jackman feels the government’s economic strategy is still too focused on the traditional Tory heartlands in the South. He believes more needs to be done to encourage new companies to set up in the North, starting with the rollout of faster broadband. (He says “Digital Durham” has delivered close to 96 per cent availability of “reasonable” broadband across the area.)
“The majority of startups are in the South-East of England at the moment, and people keep going there in hopes of making a fortune,” says Jackman.
“There’s a general movement away from the North-East to the South-East, and we’re trying to do something about that. We’ve created an organisation called Dynamo for our ICT industry, which has about 25,000 people and growing. We’re trying to fight back.”
Jackman takes a more measured view on the “digital revolution”, calling it a “double-edged sword”.
“Getting access to decent broadband allows you to attract new customers and suppliers,” he states.
“But you might be a small corner shop, broadband comes in, allows Tesco access to all your customers in the region, then enables it to take all your customers away.
“Having infrastructure is just part of the issue. Apart from that, it’s about readying for it, having an effective web presence, a digital strategy, and working out how to attract tech businesses. So it’s not as simple as ‘let’s get broadband’.”
Computing asks Jackman what one thing he’d ask of Whitehall. Diplomatically, he replies that he doesn’t necessarily see it as a Whitehall “issue”.
“It’s more about our own belief and our own ability in the North-East, and nobody is going to sort this out other than ourselves,” he says.
“But I think if I were to ask Whitehall to do anything, it would be to practice what they preach. We talk about digital government, but departments make it difficult by having so many processes that are still analogue, and it’s also hard to work out what they want to do when they seem more politically focused than pragmatically focused. I’m not out to make a political comment, though.
“Local authorities need to work much more closely together, and the new Super Authority (which five of seven North-East councils, including Durham, have so far opted into) in the North-East is a step in the right direction. We just need more of them. It’s not just about feet under desks or management, it’s a much bigger picture about a skilled workforce, age of retirement, and work expectation.
“We have to divide our client base in terms of ability. We have people who expect us to keep up with the market, with the rapid changes in technology, and those who are trying to provide cutting-edge applications for an audience that doesn’t understand it yet.
“We have 510,000 people right across the spectrum of ability and expectation, so we have some people expecting us to be able to do all the things they need from their iPhone – find a pothole and get it fixed, for example – while others expect us to do it face to face, with that kind of contact.”
Jackman sees opportunity here, but seems also to be quietly despairing as to where to start. He’s even having trouble convincing Durham Council of the benefits of embracing big data.
“I’m in the process of trying to get big data off the ground, trying to get people to listen around it,” he says.
“There’s nothing new we need to know about our customers – their stories are in the data we’ve got – we just don’t know how to read it, or where to look at the moment.
“But by bringing together all the different data sets across the organisation and the region, there will be different stories to be told. So it’s about building up that consensus of getting that data out, and getting people to talk about it.”
At the same time, Jackman has taken some arguably controversial steps within the council to try to keep things local, too. With an annual budget of £10m, spread across a team of 140 – with a further 130 playing bit parts in IT – Jackman’s main concern is with keeping interest high among technological denizens of the North-East.
This means he’s displaying absolutely no interest in cloud operations, which he sees as paying an outside company to take operations away from Durham. Everything is hosted in traditional, in-house data centres of IBM and Dell tin.
“We use council-employed staff to run it. It’s a balance between a cost saving and a long-term strategy, but there are some applications we absolutely need to look after ourselves, though there are peripheral applications we’re starting to ask if we can get other people to look after,” Jackman concedes.
“We’re looking at some applications to create a more modern cloud in terms of what the market means by cloud now,” says Jackman, “but there are still security concerns, as well as the cost, which we need to come to terms with.”
“There’s also an issue which is particular to the North-East, which is that if we hosted everything in the cloud, it means that people – the intellect – leave the region and never come back.
“To use ICT as a tool to attract people into the North-East, you have to have people with skills, and if we go down a pure cloud kind of arrangement, those skills could leave to wherever the market is most attractive.”
Jackman is similarly unsure about BYOD, saying: “We’re off BYOD because it’s not clear at all whether or not it’s appropriate right now. We’ve been using bridge software to allow us to segment secure areas on remote devices, but we issue all our mobile staff with either encrypted laptops, or our trials of some of the Windows 8 tablets.”
Like most IT chiefs Computing has spoken to, Jackman is not keen on Microsoft’s latest OS outing, however.
“We’ve been using Samsung 500Ts, and a 700T as well,” he explains.
“I think it’s too early [for Windows 8]. I don’t think the product is yet mature enough. I don’t think it’s a device we’d be happy with. And I don’t think the device we’ve got is powerful enough to take Windows 8, or Windows 8.1.
“The trouble is that they’ve started from the wrong place. They’ve started with an existing product, rather than a new one. They’ve tried to take Windows 7 and make it into Windows 8, so many of the processes run in a very clunky way.”
A VDI setup is also in place from Juniper, which Jackman has allowed council employees to use “from McDonald’s or wherever”. Presuming, one would assume, they don’t leave the city.
It’s rare for a local government IT boss to talk with such candour about the reality of everyday life in Britain, but it’s Computing’s view that a London-centric government would do well to take heed; with Scotland considering leaving the UK altogether for similar reasons, and many government officials who deal with IT barely leaving London except for a cursory glance, it’s a fair assumption that Durham’s story doesn’t exist in isolation.