Nadira Hussain talks about a measured approach to radical change, the tensions in centralising ICT provision, and the potential of women in the sector
You can't hurry radical change, says Nadira Hussain, especially when you have to involve a lot of stakeholders who have their own priorities and varying degrees of caution about what's going on.
The incoming president of Socitm, and spokesperson for IT professionals in local public services, has to consider the prospect carefully, given that there are plenty of proposals for changing the landscape.
There are calls for the creation of a local government digital service, which Socitm itself supports, and for the provision of more common tools and platforms for local web services. There has even been talk of the equivalent of a gov.uk site for local government, although the organisation is not in favour.
Hussain talks up the need for a local GDS, but suggests that the differing priorities and characters of authorities could give it an even tougher task than the equivalent central government body.
"If we are to do anything remotely seriously, we've got to think about radical change," she says. "We've started on a journey that says we've got to be better and smarter about delivering services, and the local practice can be better in terms of accessibility, and using a customer-centric view of delivering services. The challenge is about how we define the balance to manage the day job and the radical change
"I think the current GDS requirements are good, and the challenge is how we do it tactically."
Her emphasis on the tactical is there when asked about the possibility of a common platform and tools for local web services, talking of the need for a careful approach in planning, defining how it could be delivered, and projecting a return on investment.
"We're moving from concept to reality, but it takes time and investment," she says. "We've understood the theory and potential benefits, and now some evidence and practical demonstration of that theory would be good, but once again it's going to be longer term rather than immediate."
Then there is the question of whether many local authorities are keen to follow the lead set by others. Hussain plays up the concept of trailblazers - authorities using digital technology to do things differently - and believes that others will be ready to follow; but also that they want to see clear benefits before they do so. Adding all the problems in moving away from a legacy system makes it a long term transition, something that no one is going to achieve "by waving a magic wand".
Hussain's own experience makes her acutely aware of the all this. Her first big role in the sector was as head of customer services ICT at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where she led the centralisation of its delivery and set up a centre of excellence. It ran into resistance where teams were used to having their own support from people deemed to be experts in specific areas.
"That was quite difficult as people are used to their own methods of delivery, but working with them, demystifying the technological jargon, and bringing them onside to what we were trying to deliver, we did to a large degree establish the decentralisation," she says.
"You have to focus on the 'What's in it for me?' the why of adopting the change, the benefits for individual stakeholders and the overall benefits for the organisation. It was a challenge."
The key point in selling this internally was to emphasise the robustness and resilience of the new service. Hussain points to the down side of a more localised approach, that it's more costly, and if that 'expert' is suddenly out of action there could be no back-up. By contrast, the central pool of expertise could be just as accomplished and it's always available.
On to Athena
From Tower Hamlets she moved on to Athena, the pan-London back office shared services programme, the centrepiece of which has been the provision of the One Oracle solution. Hussain has recently been leading its implementation at Havering, and again her experience is that changes on this scale cannot be rushed - and that such a solution will not always be right for every authority.
"What we found was each authority had their own arrangements and contracts, at different costs and levels of delivery, and it does not always work out to find common ground that is cost-effective and can deliver the savings. In particular, for one of the suppliers there was almost no business case in moving to a common platform as the cost of everything in the current arrangement and the move was cost-prohibitive."
She is enthusiastic about One Oracle, but says there were problems with its implementation. It was formally launched three years ago but only embedded into the first six authorities by August of last year, and evidence of the return on investment is "a little way off". Also, it still needs work to make it easier for other councils to join.
"We're trying to make the onboarding process better, slicker and easier," she says. "It's only when we refine that and we can quickly onboard other councils get to the stage of having a cost-effective model. But we're not there yet."
Hussain's personal priority for her year as president is to promote the role of women in public sector ICT. It has been on past agendas, but she thinks the conception of ICT as being geeky has often been a turn-off for women.
Again she points to her own experience, coming from a non-techy background but claiming that she and other women can bring other valuable skills to the mix.
"A lot of push is now required to say it's not just about the technological angle or the programming, that there are other, softer aspects to the delivery of ICT. It comes in terms of relationship development, account management, business analysis, programme and project management, things we might be able to tap into to pitch you into mainstream ICT."
Hussain thinks that good intentions have had a limited impact and is setting up a formal structure to support the campaign. One of the first steps is to create a group within Socitm's presence on the Knowledge Hub, and longer term she hopes to link the visibility of women to its Top Talent programme.
"I'm hoping that establishing a Socitm women's group will alleviate some of these stresses and challenges. One is about networking, sharing experiences, more public speaking, improving visibility, and I hope I can address that imbalance at the annual conference in October.
"The second is about how we can make the change a reality. I want to establish an initiative working with all women to create an opportunity to experience public and private sector working so they are at the point of asking if they want to consider IT as a career, and would have those options and discussions with career advisers.
"It's paramount in my view to progress this agenda. I want to establish something that's an ongoing initiative."