Interview: Peter Bishop explains how the city council’s IT insourcing is laying the ground for a more agile approach to building digital services
Peter Bishop says he feels as if one chapter in his life has just concluded and a new one begun.
He has led Birmingham City Council’s withdrawal from much of its long term IT outsourcing contract with Capita and into the early stages of building a new data and digital service, which will be at the heart of its future transformation initiatives.
It all reflects the widespread evolution in thinking about digital in the public sector since the contract with Capita was signed back in 2006.
“It’s in the dimension of the concept of digital being more than just 1s and 0s and technology, but about putting citizens, customers and users first in how we think about, design and deliver services,” he says.
In addition, he says the creation of his own role as director for digital and customers services was a deliberate strategy move by the chief executive to position digital at the top of the council’s agenda.
It is now two years since Birmingham went public with its plan to replace its joint venture with Capita with a more limited arrangement. It completed the transition in August, taking back all of the TUPEd staff and those seconded to the company, and leaving Capita to run a few services, most notably the data centres, while it has effectively taken back control over its digital assets.
Bishop says that Capita had done a good job within the terms of the contract but that the change had become a necessity.
“The contract with Capita was designed pre-2006 and let in that year,” he says. “It was a traditional IT contract that really didn’t suit the needs of the council in a truly digital age.
“That’s no criticism of anybody – it was a big strategic partnership that did what it needed to do in the noughties – but it wasn’t standing the test of the kind of innovation, new ways of thinking and deploying technology, and how tech and data can make a big difference.
“I don’t want to criticise Capita but the contract had had its day, and it was important to us to take back control so we could start to shape not only the user- and data-centric service that we need, but to get it at the centre of the change we want in Birmingham.”
He says that, while it took two years to negotiate the exit, the process was generally amicable. The council has now signed up consultancy Rainmaker to provide support in shaping the direction of its digital and data service and its transformation plans.
“If we are going to put digital at the centre of how the council wants to operate it needs a partner who really gets putting users first, thinks about data and how you get to solutions in different ways.
“So I had to start a process of reform and transformation of that service itself, and Rainmaker is here to help us do that. They add value in saying how can we use these skills and new behaviours in ways we want in terms of shaping some of the big council projects.”
Bishop emphasises that Rainmaker is not shaping Birmingham’s ICT and Digital Strategy, which was agreed in 2016 to run until 2021, but it has been supporting the creation of its new service through workshops, coaching, mentoring the leadership team and providing various tools and techniques.
“Many people had worked with Capita since 2006 and were very used to a particular way of working,” he says. “It was very contractual, expensive and formulaic but not very agile, so Rainmaker has been helping the team and directors reframe how we work more effectively together.”
The new digital service, which consists of nearly 350 people, incorporates the operational capabilities – migrated through a ‘lift and shift’ – to underpin the transformation efforts. Bishop says this reflects the need for a strong operational management of assets, data and applications, again praising Capita for the team it has passed back to the council.
He acknowledges there are gaps in the skills it will need, pointing to areas such as the management of back end applications and APIs, and says it is recruiting new people to fill some of them. But he also believes that the team has talent that just needs to be shaped appropriately with the right training and career development.
Its priorities will be influenced heavily by the major themes of the strategy: integrating ICT and digital services; helping to build a digital economy and culture; making the council more data-centric; commissioning to get value for money; effective governance; and promoting innovation.
There has been early progress in the acceleration of work to enable people to access services online through the BRUM account, on the creation of online maps to help them see what is going on with services such as waste management and planning applications at ward and street level. The council is also aiming to support its employees and improve collaboration through a roll out of Windows 10 and Office 365.
Along with this there is bound to be an investment in infrastructure.
Data network rethink
“We are going to go to market in a rethink around our data network, and we know we need to improve our voice environment,” says Bishop. “The servers we use to manage our application estate are extensive and we are going to market around the whole data centre space.
“We’re putting in investment around that back end, commodity type infrastructure. We know we can’t be a successful digital council without great foundations, and they need to be updated.”
Bishop says Birmingham has recently purchased Oracle Cloud for its HR and finance functions, but that, even with the contracts for its three data centres due to expire in March 2021, he is not looking towards a wholesale shift to the cloud.
“Like most organisations and local authorities we are adopting cloud where it makes most sense to us, but we are anticipating it will be a mix of public and private cloud and the size and shape of our application estate will probably be in a traditional data centre.
“We’ll do it on a point basis rather than a wholesale move, as our market research has suggested it could rapidly get financially out of control if we were to do that. So we’ll probably end up in this hybrid.
“And we have to deal with cliff edges around the core infrastructure, such as Windows 2008 Server going out of support, and hardware we need to deal with.”
Emerging tech possibilities
He also sees plenty of scope to harness emerging technologies and says the council has begun some work on robotic process automation, further use of chatbots in its contact centre and use cases for 5G.
“We’re keeping a watchful eye on some of the new stuff coming through, but have to be careful we don’t overstretch ourselves. As a council we’re still catching up with some of the basics and need to make sure that when we modernise we don’t lose sight of those.”
It is also dealing with a relatively new dimension in collaboration with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). This includes the work on connectivity and using fibre to support the roll out of 5G, and on building a digital infrastructure for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022.
“We have to work closely with them as their aims are similar to ours,” Bishops says. “We know the clean air zone will be a big issue for customers, and that prompts a lot of questions about how we use our data and the data they have through the transport authority. We are doing some active collaboration with the office of data analytics they are putting into place.”
All this leads into that new chapter for Bishop and Birmingham, and back to the point that he thinks it would not be possible to press ahead without the council having recovered control over its digital assets.
“We’re four months into that journey and it will take a lot of time to get there, but we’re never going to become the digital council we want to be if we don’t have a good, owned and delivered digital service of our own making.”