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UK CIO Innovation Master Series: A sit down with David Wilde, CIO of Essex County Council

We discuss how he has managed to innovate in a time of austerity

16Mar

If you’re a CIO and would like to take part and be interviewed for our special UK versus US CIO Master series please get in touch with the author.

It’s a hot day, one of the rare few in London when I meet David Wilde, Essex County Council’s esteemed CIO for a round of coffees and a chat to discuss how he and his team are making a difference to the people of Essex and helping the County Council get through turbulent times.

The global recession changed the world and for Essex County Council one of the hammer blows was felt in October 2010 when the UK Government announced its Austerity Program. ECC’s budget, like every County Council’s budget was decimated, threatening the viability of almost every service, from policing to welfare that the County Council delivered to its 1.4 million inhabitants.

Five years on and £500 million in savings later ECC’s annual budget of £2.2 Billion is still the second largest in the UK but the cuts are by no means over. By 2018 they will have to find another £185 million of additional savings, but in all likelihood, they will still have a £100 million social care funding gap.

Building homes

One of their most important duties is to provide high quality, compassionate care for vulnerable elderly individuals but as budgets continue to fall, this is one service that, without the right intervention, could have easily ended facing an endless cycle of decline. Driving the cost of residential care down can only go so far meaning something else needed to happen. One answer is to become a property investor.

The council had a dilemma. On the one hand their residential care costs were rising as the existing private and social housing stock for supported living could not meet demand, while on the other they were faced by an increasingly ageing population who, more often than not, want to be cared for in their own homes. Both sides of the coin needed investment and resources that were becoming increasingly scarce.

Against the backdrop of many commercial company’s apparent inability to think outside the box, the Council’s intervention and subsequent vision, supported by David and a diverse team from across the organization, produced a step change in the way that the elderly will be cared for and the way in which Secondary Care will be delivered across the county. The technology is the enabler but the real challenge will be the execution.

The vision is to build the best that today’s Connected Home and Telehealth solutions have to offer into the fabric of 2,500 new homes. In today’s market it costs the council between £600 and £800 per week to provide individual care and retrofitting these new technologies into older housing stock costs at least £6,000 per installation. By building these technologies into the houses when they’re built, however, the cost falls to £2,500 and £50 per week in monitoring.

For the Council, the ability to keep elderly people in their homes for an additional 9 years is the real win, but with a 120% reduction in costs and a guaranteed 10% return on their investment which will reduce their borrowing needs, it’s fair to say it’s a Win-Win. In these austere times that is a rare thing.

As for the future, David wants to see closer integration between housing, social care, health and technology to provide greater 'Community Resilience'. As is all too often the case during austere times there comes a point where councils have to have frank conversations with members of the public about the need to ween them off government funded support and onto a privately run replacement service.

In a world full of Chinese walls and intellectual property contracts, Essex is sharing the insights from the initiative and extend the service to the county’s local authorities, charities and community representatives so they can tailor them for their own devices.

Smart Places

Essex is 73% rural and 27% urban and while the majority of people are concentrated within its urban centers, it’s still the council's responsibility to provide the same continuity and quality of services to the rest of the county. Again, technology is enabling new, faster ways to deliver and streamline services. An example of this is Essex’s 'Connected Journey' initiative where David and his team are working with Visteon, a Ford spin off, to design more intelligent multimodal journey planners that draw on a number of information sources, from Twitter through to the official Highways Agency feeds to help commuters optimize their journeys, avoid delays and arrive on, or ahead of time.

If you think that this is simply a sensible, innovative initiative though, then you’re evidently still underestimating David’s love for emerging technology and his focus on the long term outcomes. With both eyes on the road and his hands firmly on the wheel he’s already got his eye on how he and his team could improve the model to deliver even better journey experiences and game changing reductions in traffic and infrastructure costs when driverless cars, lorries and buses begin hitting the roads in 2025.

On suppliers

When we turn to the topic of suppliers much of what I hear is what I hear all too often. There’s the good, the plain bad and then there’s Business as Usual.

By far and away it appears that Dell is David’s preferred supplier, providing the majority of the councils infrastructure estate. They, unlike other providers who often seem schizophrenic in their approach, listen. They interpret David’s needs and work together with him and his team putting his objectives before their own.

Other vendors however are at the other extreme. Google, AWS and Salesforce to name three who, arguably, should know a lot better. Google proclaim that they know the county council market place like the back of their hand and their USP? They’re cheaper than their competition. AWS’s sales teams meanwhile, despite the fact that the adoption of Public Cloud by highly regulated industries like the Financial Services industry look like a rounding error, continue to push their cloud as a safe port for public sector data. While the jury’s still out it’s David who goes to jail if it isn’t correct. Then there’s Salesforce who seem to miss the point of the customer experience, telling David and his team that they can retrofit all of the councils services into their product - sure retrofitting your services into a suppliers product sounds like fun, but in reality, many technology staff would rather stick their heads in the toilet.

Smaller vendors are hungry and more interesting, something that I hear all the time, and the system integrators and telco’s are fat, still pushing high margin products while still thinking that offshoring is the answer to everything while at the same time not realizing that it’s that very approach that, in this new age of On Demand is killing them.

On jargon

Cloud and Big Data. If any of these are on the marketing collateral you’re about to email across to David and his team after your cold call then stop. Time and time again, from CIO’s in every size of company and in every industry, I hear the same response. Cloud is old hat and Big Data is yesterday’s news, Cloud is simply a delivery model for IT and having a conversation about Big Data is meaningless if you aren’t talking about innovative outcomes. So vehement have customers reactions to these two topics become that I’ve heard entire round tables of CIO’s say they will lynch the next salesman who comes in and mentions them. You have been warned.

01100101 the Digital county

The private sector has made no bones about announcing huge investments in 'digital' but in truth, and even though the public sector is often perceived as being technology laggards, not leaders, it was the UK Public Sector that in 1995 tried to centralize their core services in a single Government portal.

The nameless forerunner to .gov.uk was funded from the Cabinet Offices’ budget, had over 4 million hits per month and was so successful that President Bill Clinton invited the team to Washington to discuss it and open.gov (the US version) eventually was formed.

ECC is now 'digital by default' but as many of us know 'being digital' is all well and good if you can access the new digital services at an appropriate speed, after all, as anyone who lives in the countryside will tell you, online services are only useful if you can connect to them and I for one should know better than most people. While I work in London I live in the middle of a farming community sucking down broadband at less than 1Mb while my phone flicks between one bar of signal and Edge and GPRS. YouTube has to buffer, downloading Apple’s OS X updates take days and I’m not going to be a Netflix customer anytime soon.

If I lived in Essex though I wouldn’t have that issue. David, like many other industry leaders, know that if you want to create new jobs, realize the benefits that digital offers, or use digital as your preferred tool to innovate new services then super fast county wide broadband is a must. That’s just what the Next Generation Access programme, which David is in charge of, is delivering. Costing £52 million it’s helping to connect over 120,000 premises (giving 95% coverage) to super fast broadband and network provision across the county has been increased ten fold while also helping them converge voice, video, wired and wireless technologies through David’s Next Generation Network (NGN) programme, at the same time reducing costs by nearly 20%.

The provision of super fast broadband, however, isn’t just about helping home owners watch the latest instalment of The Game of Thrones. It’s much more than that. Government studies in the UK and abroad have shown time and time again that companies that have access to modern network infrastructure outperform their rivals, in revenue terms, by up to 30%. It’s no wonder therefore that it’s one of the key criteria that companies use to evaluate the ROI for new investments and David knows this all too well. Again, ever the long term strategist, he’s focused on using the initiative to drive growth and jobs. It’s already paying off, attracting new businesses into the county and helping bring millions of pounds worth of Chinese investment for Chelmsford's' Medical Technology Accelerator. If you never thought you’d be seeing Chinese dragons dancing down Chelmsford high street you might want to think again.

It’s all related

'Work is a thing you do, not a place you go' he says, subsequently it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the past three years he and his team have aggressively rolled out mobile working. By providing council staff with the tools and training they needed to work from home, the council has seen productivity go off the chart, particularly on Fridays when the desks are empty and 2,000 concurrent users slam the system. Without the right superfast broadband infrastructure though, the benefits from the initiative would have been diluted.

Conclusion

Driverless Vehicles, Telehealth, Connected Homes, Connected Journeys and Innovation Accelerators. No one can say that ECC is a technology laggard. In fact, by comparison David and his team put many private sector organizations to shame. By my reckoning, it’s time that some of those companies start to look over the fence and think seriously about following the public sector's lead and take their hats off to Essex County Council. David, his colleagues and the teams doing so much to make this real.

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