How Camden Council is getting information under control

Last year, the London Borough of Camden laid out its strategic priorities for the next five years. Alongside objectives including reduced inequality, improved democratic representation and economic growth was this: “Delivering value for money services by getting it ‘right first time’.”

This mantra means tailoring services to the needs of citizens, Camden Council said, so that their requirements are met when they want, and how they want. Not only will this mean more satisfied citizens, it hopes, but addressing issues before they become prolonged and expensive disputes will save the council money.

Clearly, one crucial component of delivering public services “right first time” is having timely, accurate and relevant information available to both employees and citizens. Indeed, a pilot project by a housing repairs service in Gospel Oak identified poor quality data as a key reason why only 42% of repairs were successfully completed on the first home visit. 

Realising the “right first time” ambition, therefore, means that Camden Council needs reliable and consistent information across the many services it provides.

Like most large organisations, though, the council has a number of information systems and data silos, and the quality of information is not always what it might be.

Addressing this is the focus on the council’s information governance programme. As chief information officer John Jackson explains below, the council has done its utmost to ensure that the departments themselves – not IT – take responsibility for their information assets. 

Jackson, meanwhile, has reorganised the IT department to reflect the delivery objectives of the council’s IT strategy. That, he tells Information Age, has not only cut IT costs by nearly a third, but has transformed his role to the extent that he can now focus on Camden’s digital future.

Information governance

Information Age: What were the drivers for your information governance programme?

John Jackson: There are several reasons why information is so important to us. Firstly, in difficult times, being able to put the right resources in the right place at the right time is key, and to do that we’ve got to have good quality information. That’s the starting point. 

Secondly, government work is becoming increasingly multi-agency, both within the council and across organisations. When we’re dealing with complex and challenging problems, such as vulnerable families, we can’t do it in isolation. 

We’ve got to get people working together efficiently and seamlessly so that we can tackle these more engrained and difficult problems. We don’t want to be doing the same assessment two or three times, for example, and we don’t want to be rekeying information into a lot of different systems.

The third element is about being close to our customers. We’re moving to a much more holistic view of citizens, including not just CRM data but also unstructured data and information from back office systems. 

What have you done to get information under control?

The first thing was to set up our council-wide information governance group. 

We used to have something called the information security group, which I used to chair, but we decided that we needed something different to make the point that information governance is not just an IT issue – it needs to be embedded in this business. The new group is multi-agency, with all the services are represented on there. IT is just one stakeholder. 

Since then, we’ve been working hard to establish rules for who is responsible for different information repositories. The idea is to make sure everyone understands that information management is a business problem, not an IT problem. 

Some departments have understood that from day one, but others see it as the responsibility of the IT department. That was why it was so important to get non-IT leadership onto the governance group, so the business would take ownership.

And thirdly, we launched our latest council IT strategy last year. There are three big projects in there which define out approach to information management: master data management; analytics; and document management.

And these projects themselves are overseen by the business: the MDM project, for example, is chaired by the assistant director of housing. 

“We’ve got 22 kilometers of paper in the business, and we want to get that down to around 1.5 kilometers. It’s expensive to house all that paper.”

What is the scope of your MDM project?

One thing we found is that it’s possible for a citizen to give us one set of information on one system, and different information on another. So they could give us different addresses or email address, which is a way to avoid accountability.

We’ve been working progressively to integrate our core data sets, and the first data set we focused on is what we call our Client Index.

We’re joining up 16 different systems across the council using MDM software from IBM. That allows to ensure changing something in one system will alert us to the same changes in another.

Our philosophy is to reuse what we’ve got and integrate it using open standards and building blocks like MDM, rather than go for the big enterprise systems like SAP or Oracle. We think this is a more affordable and sustainable way.

And document management?

We are moving to being a paperless council. We worked out that in Camden we’ve got 22 kilometres of paper in the business. What we want to get that down to is about 1.5 km or less, partly because we’re moving to a new building with a higher person-to-desk ratio, and we can’t have lots of paper at the building. 

So we’re doing a council-wide implementation of HP TRIM (Hewlett-Packard’s document management platform).

We need to do that, partly because of our accommodation strategy. This paper costs a lot of money to house. We’re going to move to new accommodation with a higher person-to-desk ratio, so we can’t have lots of paper in the same building. 

But we also need to make our documents digital so they can be shared digitally. And thirdly, we need discipline in document management. When you enter a document into TRIM, it asks you to set the access and retention policies, so we can manage our information in a much more rigorous way than we did when it was all on paper. 

And how are you using analytics?

We are currently working on a data visualisation and in-memory analytics deployment, using QlikView. The QlikView dashboards allow you to slice and dice the data in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to before. That is helping us spot issues we would have seen with traditional reporting. 

For example, let’s say you work in parking and you want to look at all the parking fines over a given period. You would never think to ask for a report on how many fines are being issued to cars register in Afghanistan, for example, but when you slice and dice the data, suddenly you might spot that there has been a spike recently and there is some kind of problem. 

Now, we’re thinking about how we might be able to use this to provide citizen-facing dashboards on the Internet. 

How do you measure the success of your information governance programme?

We use a mixture of approaches, and it’s still evolving if I’m honest. 

One way to see how well we’re managing information is to track our security breaches. Every breach gets reviewed by the information governance group, and we implement actions on the back of those reviews. And I think it’s a good thing if the number of data breaches that are reported goes up at first, because previously we wouldn’t have had the maturity to identify them. 

We’re also audited by the Information Commissioner’s Office, so there some statutory obligations that come out of that. 

And thirdly, we keep track of the projects – how many systems we’re integrating, how much duplication we’re flushing out of those systems, and the progress of our analytics deployments, for example. 

Digital shift

If the business is taking ownership of information, how is the IT department’s role changing?

Well, I’ve set the IT department up in a way which is pretty unique in the public sector. IT departments are normally divided into functional silos – networks, data centres, departmental systems etc. 

In Camden, teams are organised around what they deliver. I’ve got a team that specialises in business intelligence and analytics, for example. I’ve got another one that specialises in moving services online, and another that focuses on service integration. 

Adopting this cross-cutting model means that we don’t have people in different functional silos doing the same work twice, which is a huge efficiency gain. It’s meant that I’ve been able to knock out over £4 million in cost over the last three years, which is about 28% of our spend on IT. 

It also means all the council’s infrastructure and applications are under my authority, so I’m in a unique position to manage both the systems and the information in them.

That’s means we’re in a great position to keep those systems in line. IBM were quite shocked how quickly we were able to pull together the data from our systems for the MDM project – we did it in around 12 weeks. That’s because the IT department runs and manages all those systems ourselves. 

And what about your role as CIO?

My role is becoming much broader. My job right now is to focus on the big agenda – customer services, channel shift, analytics and customer insights, service integration – all of which cuts across the organisation.

A good example of that is the council’s digital strategy, which I’m working on now. It’s much broader than the IT strategy. I’m looking at the how IT skills in schools will impact employability and whether the broadband coverage in the borough will be enough to meet the demand from businesses – stuff that would never go into the IT strategy.

Another part of it is this idea of the “digital public realm”. Councils have so much information about what’s going on in the public realm – where the bin men are, or when that lamppost on your street is going to get fixed – that we could share with the public. We’ve already published some open data, but I think the future lies in open APIs, allowing third party apps to interact with our systems.

But working on this has been fascinating, and it’s brought together teams who would never normally meet.

In one meeting, we had people from the highways department and some of the people who do housing repairs. The highways guys were talking about how they’d saved something like 20% from the cost of managing lampposts by putting WiFi in them, which means they can switch them on and off remotely. 

The housing guys realised that if they put sensors into the water pipes in our properties, we could spot failing water systems before they create a great big mess every where and cost a lot of money to fix. 

Talking about this stuff means we’ve developed this kind of disruptive thinking internally.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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