Management > CIO

'We're on the right tracks': IT transformation in Devon

Charlotte Jee Published 19 November 2012

From thin client technology to cloud to PSN: how Devon's budgetary pressures are driving innovation


Devon County Council's Head of ICT Rob Parkhouse tells Charlotte Jee about how the council's strategy is focusing on improving technology amid the drive to reduce operational costs.

Parkhouse could be described as a veteran of Devon County Council, having started there some 20 years ago as a network analyst. Since then he has worked his way up through management, before arriving at his current position as Head of ICT, although he also has responsibility for council property, business support, customer service and procurement. He is undoubtedly a man with a lot to think about.

Devon is currently halfway through its five-year corporate ICT strategy , approved in 2010, and it is still sticking fairly closely to its original aims, which include modernisation, cost-cutting and strategic investment. Parkhouse says it is "pretty much still valid and relevant", adding "as with all strategies, they do change over time. But in terms of our general direction it's still very much applicable. We needed to reduce operational costs and we've done some work on that. Now we're focused on delivery and improving the technology to meet the needs of the business."

The difficult context for local authorities is well-known. Devon is no different, with an overall budget of £507.5m for 2012/13, taking into account cuts of £20.6m. Achieving savings is still a key driver for the council, but Parkhouse is keen to emphasise that this has encouraged, not stifled, innovation.

For example, as part of its 'invest to save to invest' strategy, the council is planning to invest in new desktops. By moving to 'thin client' desktops- those which rely on an external server for the majority of their data processing- the council hopes to save money on hardware renewal.

Parkhouse says, "the benefit of moving to thin client technology is that it will result in significant cost savings by extending the life of the PC. We used to replace them every five years, now we'll do that every eight years. Thin client desktops will allow us to ensure that software is up to date, for example by introducing new technologies to SharePoint [a Microsoft web application platform]."

Parkhouse is also relatively positive about the Public Services Network (PSN). He says, "what they're [central government] doing with PSN is of value. The proof will be in the pudding but that has potentially got legs. We're signed up to that approach."

On that note, Devon's £2m deal with Siemens to deploy a wide area network (WAN), signed in 2009, is "in place and working fine. We've got six other authorities sharing that infrastructure. I can see that continuing and growing in future as it offers the public sector benefits in terms of cost reduction and access to infrastructure and systems."

"We're looking to get the network accredited to PSN in the coming months. And then we'll look at how we potentially encourage local take-up of PSN."

However, cost is still an ever-present concern, Parkhouse admits, adding, "I'll make no bones about it, we've had some particular challenges, for example in adult care. Some of the savings that we've wanted to invest back into technology, we've had to drive into achieving savings targets."

Despite the budgetary pressures, or perhaps because of them, the council is considering adopting various new technologies. One of these may include Cloud, according to Parkhouse: "we're seriously looking at Cloud technology, particularly around desktop products. It could open up opportunities for work sharing and reducing costs. At the moment we haven't done anything substantial in that area but it's a possibility."

He praises the G-Cloud programme, which recently launched its second iteration, but says that it is a "maturing market". He cautions that "cloud can't deliver everything but there's some merit in looking at some of the standard desktop products and seeing if they can be delivered efficiently and cost-effectively", adding that, in terms of IT, the council sees itself "becoming much more of a commissioning authority in the coming years."

Beyond savings, Parkhouse says that his key driver is "around [establishing] a modern desktop". He adds, "this involves mobility, flexible working and the ability to access information systems on the move. Flexibility is a key focus."

As part of the council's plan to reduce its floor space by 35% over the next five years (remember council buildings also fall under Parkhouse's remit), practices such as sharing desks and working from home or other remote locations will become commonplace. This is part of the reasoning behind the council's decision to pilot a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scheme in the next two or three months.

Parkhouse is enthusiastic about the scheme, saying "we are looking for staff to work in different ways. It's beneficial for them as it allows them to work flexibly, but we are also exploring BYOD in terms of the technology we need [at the council]."

He adds that the council is trying to rationalise its software, because "like many local authorities we've grown over a number of years. Part of the reasoning behind software rationalisation is costs but it's really about trying to make it less complicated. There will be some old apps that frankly won't work on Windows 7".

"Rather than trying to make it work, can you just get rid of it? What does it provide, and can you do that in a better way? Cost savings are behind it but really it's about good common sense and trying to make the service run more effectively."

Parkhouse acknowledges the chaos in nearby Cornwall , where plans to set up a £300m shared services joint venture with BT have ground to a halt, but is reluctant to draw comparisons to his own council.

"It's a difficult one. Circumstances are different. Our councils have some commonality but also a lot of different pressures, which can lead you down different routes. From our perspective, the approach we took was to invest in a new network but in a way that would allow others to come and share it, as opposed to trying to launch shared services to begin with."

He is cautiously optimistic about the path Devon has taken, saying "I think on reflection the approach we took was right, as it enabled Devon to move at the pace we wanted to move."

"We're on the right tracks. We're not there yet clearly and there's a way to go, but I think that by bringing together things like the strategy to drive down our estate footprint and our IT strategy, and the impact that can have on service delivery, public engagement, by tying those things together, hopefully the outcome will be as we expect."

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