Thursday, 28 January 2010

Government ICT strategy

Well, it's arrived, the new ICT strategy. I've read the introduction and will certianly be posting stuff once I have read it more fully and conferred with Martin Ferguson, the Socitm policy tzar.....

However, in  a subsection covering 'Professionalising IT-enabled change' we are informed that,

"Increasing the capability of our staff will not only improve the performance of our IT, it will also reduce the amount the public sector spends on ICT consultants and contractors by some 50% by 2020"
and I wonder if anyone believes that? 

We are 100% supportive of and engaged with the professionalism agenda but I wonder if lack of staff skill or professionalism is actually the reason for 50% of the current level of consultancy use?  for some , sure, but 50%! Not in my experience. It is often about lack of capacity, about political masters wanting external verification, risk 'management' (read: aversion), and a host of other reasons. Could professionalism produce some decrease in the use of Consultants - probably, yes. Will it actuy do that is a very different question...let's wait and see!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

A new team, policy messages and fire fighting

Monday, 05.56, grey, wet, cold...welcome to the week.
Another Monday speeding towards Kings Cross for what promises to be another busy and interesting week. In fact it got interesting over the weekend following the launch of IT Trends earlier in the week. We apparently had a spat with the Government CIO, John Suffolk, over the merits or otherwise, of the G Cloud, according to the press. However, according to those present who didn't have a focus on selling publications, there was a debate during which some interesting points were raised from the floor resulting in the type of discussion that should be taking place. I'll say nothing more about our support of the G Cloud initiative, other than we do and we have a great deal of confidence in Martin Bellamy and his team to deliver a working solution that will offer efficiencies and new opportunities. Martin Ferguson will, I am sure, put some detail and clarification around this in his blog entry shortly. The episode has, however, alerted us to the need to continue bringing more consistency to our communications and key messages across the whole Society.....we're on it.

It has also been interesting to note different people's expectations of the role that Socitm should play in relation to (particularly) central government initiatives that will impact significant sections of our membership. Some seem to fear that any criticism on our part will jeopardise our 'place at the table' whilst others suppose that we should always occupy the role of devil's advocate. From our perspective neither is correct. We aim to fulfil the role of critical and honest friend and I believe this is how we are increasingly being seen. We won't hide from potential problems or issues that we believe will impact our members or render a service 'unfit for purpose' but we will raise them constructively and in appropriate fora. And all of this before Peterborough!

My main meeting is the first with the new (complete) 'front of house' team: Martin Ferguson, Head of Policy, Ellen Jessett, Head of Membership, Karl Grundy, Head of Commercial, David Houston, FD and me. I believe we have, possibly for the first time in the Society, a full time professional, skilled core group covering all key aspects of the organisation. Our discussions were as wide ranging as they were valuable and covered:

•Our main policy focus and corresponding messages: Tomorrow's local public services , Information management, Efficiency and sustainability, Infrastructures (PSN, G Cloud...), Citizen/staff engagement. Socitm Futures is leading on this work and will begin to appear on our new website shortly (more later) and in Martin Ferguson's blog entries.

•Professionalism and member development including proposed new membership categories, post nominals, mentoring and corporate membership

•Commercial and business development opportunities and relationships with the supplier community

•The 2010 budget, business planning and strategies

All in all a very valuable day that has begun to lay the groundwork for much more collaborative and coherent working across each of our main activity areas.

We also discussed the new website...yes it has finally gone live, albeit in beta form see: . and of course, there have been and still are some teething problems and content to be updated, but we have now got a significantly more flexible and functionally rich platform than we have ever had which integrates with our (also new) corporate CRM system. I admit it is hard to see the benefits while you are still fighting fires, but they are there and will come into their own as we develop. We have invited, and are receiving, feedback, comments and suggestions on the site, most of which are positve and practical and are helping us to develop the site.

Most of today has been spent looking at business planning and ensuring we lay the right foundations for future revenue short the resources to implement the plans! There will be more detail around this in future entries. For the rest of the week I am in Northampton with the 'back office team' who are also doing a tremendous, if often unseen, job in rebuilding our corporate infrastructure and processes and keeping the whole show on the road

Saturday, 23 January 2010

A week of politics, trends and a new website.......

Yet again it has been quite a week.....beginning with ethical and moral discussions on Facebook sparked by the cruise ship visit to Haiti. I retweeted an article from Twitter to Facebook, to which Richard Steel responded with some very good counter points, then when in Edinburgh I met my son who is studying Maths and Philosophy who greeted me with
 "Richard Steel made some very good points about the cruise ship"
and I am wondering how on earth my son knows Richard.....then it clicked that he reads my Facebook! (OK, so I'm slow).

On Tuesday I went to London to take part in a workshop organised by the JANET  ( ) stakeholder group, of which the Society are members. There was some very useful discussion about the use of JANET by local authorities for their corporate connectivity rather than just education, and some case studies of successful implementation and operation from Scotland and some English councils. In these austere times it could be something worth looking at far more closely. I always find myself doing a double take when meeting JANET folk, as they talk nonchalantly about  one or two hundred megabit pipes like I talk about 4 mb!! Some useful further discussion to be had between ourselves and JANET.

On Wednesday it was our Commercial Board meeting. This is the group tasked by the main board to oversee, coordinate and monitor our business activities and developments. This meeting was the first for Karl Grundy our newly appointed Head of Commercial who you will, I am sure, be hearing more from in the coming weeks and months. It is both an uncertain and an exciting time in commercial terms. There are undoubtedly challenges before us and our members but there are also some very significant opportunities in the areas of efficiency and innovation. It is certainly our intention to focus on these areas to benefit our members and their organisations as well as opening opportunities for our supplier members to better operate within a difficult market.

After the board meeting it was a four and a half hour train journey to Edinburgh with David Houston, our FD, during which we had to get stuck into finalising our 2010 budget in prepartion for the next days meeting. We are taking a very positive attitude towards growth and opportunities both in commercial and membership terms. We are aware of the inherent risks of such a position but equally aware of the 'do nothing' option which invariably will slide into organisational decline and despair.

I have to mention that, although it looked as though it may never happen, the new Socitm website actually went live....on ...then it went 'un-live' for a while which caused me some consternation, but not as much as our technical and development staff, nor for that matter Insight, who had just launched IT Trends (more of that in a moment). We have launched the site as 'beta' ,for now, as the whole enterprise has proved to be extremely ambitious for an organisation as small as Socitm (relatively speaking). I shall explain, although I am in no way technical, which shall soon become apparent, but firstly I do want to acknowledge the huge amount of work and support from our internal staff David and Carl and our technology partners Jadu ( )and Esteiro (Gold Vision) - .

Could we have done things better? - you can always do thyings better! However, the complexities of buidling a truly transactional website with individual user authentication and profiles that fully integrate the web front end into a real time back office CRM and a full online transaction and pricing system has provided some interesting and tense moments. It dawned on us as we began looking at some of the logic behind the decisions we were expecting the system to make that the human brain is absolutely brilliant and things we can do almost intuitively are really rather complex in terms of logic. I also learned that just because something works ten times out of ten in a test environment does not mean it will work when you flick over to a live environment with real time activities on live data bases........told you I wasn't a techie. some of the stuff can only truly be tested in real time on live systems.....not really the kind of thing I wanted to hear. so, bearing all this in mind, we launched in 'beta' and have provided a feedback channel for users to send us comments, suggestions and problem notifications. so, send away and help us move off beta.

Anyway, the end of the week arrived the site was still live and although still having some teething problems we can begin to really use its functionality in the days and weeks ahead.

I noticed on the news that a couple of things are brewing for our esteemed political masters....someone has actually had the audacity to claim that the government is 'utterly disfunctional' at almost every why would anyone ever think that........and then today (Saturday) we hear that the security level has been raised to severe, an attack is highly likely, sometime!. My inclination is too err on the side of 'vacuous' , the 'accusation' levelled by Patrick Mercer MP, not because it is not serious but because it is almost meaningless in the way it has been announced and described. We are told that it does not mean an attack is imminent, for then the status would be 'critical' but we do know that an election is imminent...and that IS critical!

And finally, the launch this week of IT Trends has caused some comment from government, in the form of John Suffolk the Government CIO (you can read his comments here )  IT Trends, has had the temerity to suggest that there may be some risks associated with the planned 'G Cloud' approach.....

Whilst supportive of the ‘cloud’ as a concept, and an exciting and potentially efficient concept at that, surely the emphasis must at this time be on the word ‘ potentially’? Bearing in mind the government’s record of actually going live on time, on budget and with the advertised functionality, when it comes to implementing innovative technology (with the exception of the few very good, but regularly rehearsed examples) I think we are wise to take a stance that is broadly supportive but honest and open about the possible areas of risk and that we have a responsibility to highlight these. Had we done so more vociferously and in a more organised way at the beginning of the GC initiative, for instance, we may have ended up with a ‘better’ system more quickly and more appropriate to the needs of ALL participants. The one factor that pushes me personally more towards the believer than the sceptic is the involvement of Martin Bellamy who I think has the understanding and the drive to make this happen.This is my personal view of course. Having said all this it does and should raise an issue within Socitm regarding a more coordinated approach to our policy. This is something we are now beginning to get to grips with but there are still some areas to be addressed and I am sure that the Society Head of Policy, Martin Ferguson, will respond in due course.

Sometimes it can all feel a bit like this (go on, follow the link, it's worth it)

Saturday, 16 January 2010

It feels like things are starting to come together

The meeting we had on Thursday afternoon to discuss our communications strategy was the first time the full new team has been together and it was great to see how our different skills and personalities worked very creatively, prompted by Vicky Sargent. Ideally we would have liked a comms strategy before now but it did not seem right to 'impose' something that is so dependant upon input from membership, policy and commercial areas before the relevant heads were in post. During the course of the meeting I believe the delay was more than vindicated as a number of significant amendments were agreed in some of our core areas.

We have, for some time, been pondering the extent to which we should profile 'ICT' when we describe our vision and objectives. This is not because we wish to distance ourselves from our past or our core members rather than it is a desire to reflect, and to some extent lead a changing agenda. As technology elements of the equation have matured the focus can and needs to move from the technology to the business benefits it can deliver. The fact that things are changing, and are doing so at a greater rate than ever before, presents challenges and many opportunities and imposes a neccessity for agility in any organisation. We eventually decided to split 'ICT' into its component parts which reflects the fact that each of information, communications and technology are legitimate and important areas in their own right and all contribute to the improvement and greater efficiency of our processes and outputs. Well, that's what we think anyway!

Following the meeting, which I had to leave early in order to travel north, I began to prepare for my Friday meeting with Newcastle and Durham universities. I have been chatting for some time with Colin Ashurst from Durham University Business School and was joined at the meeting by an 'old friend' of Socitm, Steve Williams, now Director of Information Systems & Services at Newcastle Uni. There are some really interesting plans in the NE which are certainly of great interest to us for a variety of reasons. Part of our new vision is a broadening of our areas of interest and of our membership base,which could include higher education. There are some projects and initiatives around improvement processes and organisational and professional development that certainly come within our sphere of interest all of which points to further discussions with our professional development and policy groups.

The meeting I missed by travellingt north was our events group which is in the final stages of planning the Socitm spring event, which is being held in Birmingham and which promises to be refreshingly different, interactive and highly topical. Watch out for more details here and on our website ( )

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Back into the swing, feels a bit like shock therapy.....

I have to start with a couple of pics from my epic journey to Edinburgh, having decided for the sake of adventure to drive up the A68 rather than the A1. We hardly saw another vehicle for most of the way and the scenery was outsdanding....

for more winter pics see:

Anyway having arrived safely back on Sunday (via the A1!!) it was time to prepare for the week ahead. On Monday morning following an uneventful journey (our local mainline train service was back to normal, which is to say over priced mediocrity) I attended a cross organisational workshop led by Socitm looking at the future of public services with a specific focus on what may or may not be happening following the general election. The meeting was Chatham House so there will be no attribution of comments, or indeed detailed content but there was some very valuable discussion with some great throw aways:

"If you are not involved in futures work you could spend much of your time trying to solve yesterdays problems..."

"We continually hear how important info management is, but fail to see it achieving a significance that is treated as more of a priority than maintaining silo’d structures..."

We considered what the big ticket issues for local gov are as we move into 2010 (not rocket science) but, more importantly,observed that ".....whatever they are they will, above all else, be considered within a context of minimum 25% savings. Cuts are a growth area!"

.........Not long ago information was valuable insofar as if you had it and others did not you had an edge, but there is evidence to show that because of the overwhelming quantity, uncertain quality and ubiquitous access to information there is a less clear link between information and power or performance. This in turn suggests that the management of, and ability to deliver focussed and relevant information, is where the game must be played.

'There is a huge difference between information gathered ABOUT me which is then used by an organisation to better focus its marketing efforts AND information that an organisation may wish to provide TO or FOR a client or customer that adds value and offers real benefits. The latter is concerned with not only quality but also with ease of access, appropriateness of delivery channels etc.'

There will be further work on the detail in a range of areas, particularly that of information management.

Tuesday gave opportunity to dive into the e mail mountain and actually reply to some as well as attend buisness development and financial planning meetings. We are planning a joint workshop with Cap Gemini on Feb 8th / 9th at which we will consider one of the key questions facing local Government – ‘How can we use technology to evolve for the future?’

On Tuesday I met up with a friend and enjoyed a night at Round Midnight Jazz & Blues bar in Islington (see: ) which I can recommend if you like live music and a good pint.

Our National Advisory Council met on Wednesday and we had what I think was our most positive and productive meeting yet. The Council is one of the new groups set up as part of the 'new Socitm' and plays a crucial role as a link between the membership and the governing groups of the Society. In many ways we have been finding our way for the last 12 months and trying to strike a balance between an advisory and an assurance or scrutiny role and I think that this meeting really got to grips with that issue with some positve actions resulting.  This meeting flowed seamlessly into the Socitm membership board  at which we heard from Ellen, our Head of membership, on her recent activity around the regions and particularly the developments in professionalism and her work towards new membership grades. There was also good news about our pilot mentoring scheme from Bernard Gudgin. The scheme is proving to be popular and i am sure it will enjoy large numbers of participants once it is rolled out more widely.

Today (Thursday) we are meeting to discuss our (shortly to be released) communications strategy which will form a central plank in our future planning and will be a cohesive element across our other strategic areas (membership, policy and business development). More on this tomorrow....

For those who are aware that Socitm are awaiting a new web site....and waiting (integration issues with back office........) I am relaibly informed that next week will see its this space for more news on that.

and finally, for now, I liked this:

Friday, 8 January 2010

End of first week back...and it's wine time

I love snow but seem to have ended up in the only place in Britain this week that hasn't got any......central London! 

I am currently waiting for a train to get me up to the East Midlands which should be far more interesting, but probably not as much as having to drive to Edinburgh on the A68, which is Saturdays adventure! Despite the lack of snow the week has been excellent as I have been introducing our latest (and probably last for a while) appointment to the wonders of Socitm. I think at this point in the week he may prefer to describe it as the 'mystery that is Socitm'! The new Head of Commercial has some refreshing and new ideas and will be starting to contact people to meet up from next week. If you want to know who he is look on the Socitm site next week...... 

We now have a full squad at Socitm and quite an impressive line up it is in terms of combined skills, experience and vision....I am working on laying out the value and benefits our members can expect from our investment in people.

Quite a week really on most fronts, obviously the weather, with gas running out and industry getting turned off while salt is running low and our salt mines running 24hours /day.....I'm just waiting to hear that the gas is turned off at the saltmines.....I wouldn't for one minute be surprised. Mr Brown is getting pretty much stuffed, back against the wall, and forced into all manner of concessions.... I'm not a political animal but I'm guessing it's not the run up to an election that he would choose..

Here's picture for all those in central London who seem to get into such a tizz over an inch or two of snow

When I checked into my hotel (in London) on tuesday I was informed that if I wanted to turn around and go home I would not be charged...when I enquired as to why I would want to do such a thing, I was told that the weather forecast was for snow and extreme cold (there literally wasn't a flake on the ground )....I decided to brave it in London!

Having spent Thursday and evening in Norhampton we had a trouble free journey back to Euston...when the travel adventures from Tuesday seemed to join seamlessly with Friday as the normal 2.5 hour train journey to Darlington took nearly 6 hours - wrong type of train service apparently. It wasn't the fact that it 'broke down' at least three times, resulting in the driver having to get out jack it up and squirt WD40, or whatever, but that although there were trolleys full of drink and food we were told that they could not sell any because the catering staff weren't onboard (this is pre-prepared and pre-packaged food and drink)!  When this was pointed out the reason changed to 'not having a float' we offered the right change and were simply told that 'we couldn't'......However after nearly 5 hours, with no extra staff having come on board, they announced that they now would sell pre-packaged food ......but only if you had the correct gotta love it!!

The good news is that (remember the car parking adventure on Tuesday morning - see that blog entry) when I returned to Darlington tonight (eventually) my e mail had not only got through to customer service, it was acted upon and I didn't have a parking ticket - so credit where it's due......

Tomorrow it's an early start driving up the A68 to Edinburgh.....I'm sure the travel fun will continue.

Next week sees us really back into the swing with LGA / Socitm/ IDeA workshoping, our Membership Board and National Advisory Council, meetings with Cap Gemini and getting to grips with our communications strategy......and then on Monday afternoon........

Now the desire for wine has got the better of it's time to enjoy Friday night.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The travel saga descends into farce.....

Well, kicked off the train (again) this time in Peterborough, although the interesting thing is that you are given a different reason for the forcible clearance of the train depending upon which unfortunate member of staff you harangue for information. On a positive note the journey has moved beyond being irritating into the realms of good that's something at least.

Anyway the two most likely reasons for eviction are:
1. the 'gear' on the train is 'killed by ice' (although not that killed that it couldn't go back to Newcastle!)

2. the overhead lines are down at Biggleswade (killed by ice apparently) but not that 'down' that the train they have just put us on cannot go through Biggleswade

We can, it seems, take our pick of explanation cos neither makes sense..... There was also a great announcement telling us that any and all trains are subject to delay, cancellation or replacement,but it was said in such a way that suggested we could opt for which we preferred.

I went for the replacement option and struck lucky :-)

Just as I was thinking that the light flurry of snow and 0.5 inch lying on the ground in Peterborough station had broken the country everything now appears to have been magically mended , presumably because of far more compliant ice than was expected! I am hurtling towards London as I write.

It's 2010 and a very shaky start back to work

Thought I would start the year in good 'grumpy old man' fashion with a bit of a rant (get it out of the way at the start of the year, but there is some good stuff at the end)

Well, here we are, January 5th, and on a train at 05.55 to London...Brrrrr, or will it be the 06.30 as the 05.55 breaks down 'from ice' at Doncaster? No, it's off this train and await the 07.30...Brrrrr, Ooops no, apparently the original train is not now 'broken by ice' so we can all get back onboard and continue the now delayed journey.....and this following the parking machines being broken, again, at Darlington station, with no staff around to advise, so a parking ticket awaits on Friday as there is no telephone number or e mail address to the station to let them know what has happened! Customer service at its best strikes again. And then, this is great, the ultimate cry of the 'incurable jobsworth' "Well, we can't help the weather dear" when a customer had the temerity to actually enquire about the situation and the audacity to ask about revised arrival times at Kings Cross! No, but perhaps you can plan for it.....  Anyway, this bold customer was not about to be detered in her quest for information....I used to be like that but inumerable trite, idiotic and meaningless answers to many many questions have actually taught me that it is usually a total waste of time and breath and serves only to make you feel slightly better for asking  follwed by the deflation of realisation that you haven't a snowball in hell's chance of getting anything sensible from often well meaning but uninformed staff. On a similar note the whole episode got me to thinking about service generally and how so much of what we have a right to expect as paying customers has been reduced to sounbite and spin over substance or so dumbed down that the definition of a good service is simply that 'they turn up' and that they do so (usually) on time! For those who do not travel much this is a trainline (Eastcoast) who charge £260 STANDARD return from Darlington to London and, for those foolish enough to blow the cost of a holiday in Europe on a first class trip, £365!!! And what do you get.....well, they usually turn up and more often than not get you there on time.

Someone, in their infinite wisdom (not the train staff who are usually great) has decided that they should have a chef on board the 05.55 but not offer a cooked breakfast service (in standard or first) - I mean why on earth would anyone leaving home at 5 am to get a train at 05.55 actually expect to be able to buy a breakfast on top of the mortgage sized fare they have already me! Well, I could go on, but I think the rant is officially over. I'd love to say that this is an example of poor private sector customer service, but i think Eastcoast has been nationalised!

Anyway, onto more positive and uplifting things,.... I was reading a number of back tweets on one of the semi working trains and came across a number of useful articles and thoughts.

The first is a useful collection of material on cloud computing implementations from Maria Spinola . you can also follow Maria on Twitter (@mariaspinola )

Then there was some interesting reading in Philip Virog's Computer Weekly blog at :  ,

an interesting blog article from Andrea DiMaio (Gartner) considering Gov 2.0 and how it should be 'driven':

and finally a paper from the Institute of Customer Service (topical eh....?):

Late breaking news: the ice has broken things it's off this train, goodness knows where as they haven't told us yet....Great....