In conversation with Geoff Connell

A majority of public servants expect public services to decline in the coming years, with seven in ten (71%) citing finance and resources as the sector’s number one challenge ahead, according to exclusive research carried out by the team behind the Public Sector Show.

Faced with the country’s growing population and the impact of years austerity, the need to find innovative ways of not only saving money, but finding solutions that improve people’s lives over the long term, has arguably never been greater.

Many of these innovative solutions are being devised and implemented at a local level, with promising results. Geoff Connell, Chief Information Officer at Norfolk County Council and immediate past-President of Socitm, the society of IT professionals, outlines how an innovative approach to using technology has led to improvements in local service delivery.

It’s a familiar problem: councils increasingly accustomed to tight budgets and stretched resources know they need to do more with less – but the question of how to do this while maintaining high standards of service delivery is less straightforward. It’s a challenge that Norfolk County Council has confronted head-on, exploring how technology and data could deliver service improvements while also helping people achieve a better quality of life.

“We knew we had to work smarter”, says Geoff on the challenge faced by him and his colleagues, “and digital technology was one of the few resources we had that would enable us to do more with less while maintaining high service standards.”

Norfolk County Council took a pioneering approach, forming a cross-party Digital Innovation and Efficiency Committee and tasking it with improving outcomes using data and technology. One of the areas they focused on was adult social care, bringing assistive technology to over 2,000 homes to enable people to live better, more independent lives. Looking ahead to the challenges presented by the UK’s ageing population, the Council is now turning to look at how this project can be scaled up to form part of a bigger adult social care package, including for self-funders.

So what were the challenges? “You need to start with digital connectivity and a degree of education and information”, Geoff advises, “otherwise it just doesn’t work. There are cultural barriers at work here – people don’t think it’s for them, or they’re too busy to find out about a new way of doing things and how they could benefit from it.”

Digital inclusion is a big part of the Committee’s work – sharing information, educating people and helping them to develop new skills. There is also a lot of external engagement – with the local community, special interest groups and other stakeholders. “So much of what the Committee does is visible to the public”, Geoff explains, “it’s all in the public domain. We want local people to be involved in shaping this work because ultimately, they are the ones we want to benefit from it.

On the connectivity side, too, the Council is laying the groundwork for progress, working to improve Norfolk’s mobile connectivity and broadband – mapping voice and data signal at over 6 million points across the county and over 200 council buildings, negotiating with mobile operating companies to get technical equipment installed at an attractive price point, and working with alternative network suppliers to ensure the best possible service. The Council’s “Better Broadband in Norfolk” strategy is for 1000% of Norfolk’s households to have access to high-speed broadband – up from 91% currently and at least 95% by April 2020.

Notwithstanding the opportunities, current and potential, that come with technological progress, there are concerns that need to be addressed – not least security. At a time when technology is making our lives easier, is it also opening us up to new dangers?

“The technology needs to be secure by design from the outset”, Geoff agrees, “and as threat levels increase, we need to be prepared to deal with them.” This is something that will be all too familiar to members of Socitm, the Society representing IT professionals, where Geoff’s tenure as President recently came to an end.

In 2017, Socitm set up the local government Cyber Technical Resource Group, established to facilitate dialogue between the Local Government Association, National Cyber Security Centre and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The group assists local authorities in improving their cyber resilience, in areas including email security and the future of compliance. The group also recently secured £1.5 million in funding from the National Cyber Security Programme to help improve levels of information around security capability.

So far, so good. But what does the future look like? What are the opportunities and challenges, and how do we confront them? “Better integration of health and social care will be a huge challenge”, predicts Geoff, and he is not alone in his opinion. Other challenges identified by public servants in the Public Sector Show’s “State of the Nation Report” include Brexit, staff shortages and maintaining a workforce with the necessary skills and experience.

One thing is certain – collaboration is key to success. “Knowledge-sharing is key, and I’m looking forward to discussing the challenges and opportunities ahead with colleagues at this year’s Public Sector Show”, says Geoff, who as one of this year’s speakers, will take part in a panel discussion on delivering digital transformation at scale, exploring how technology can be used to revolutionise the interactions between state and citizen.

The Public Sector Show takes place at ExCel London on Tuesday 26th June and is free to attend for those working in the public sector. You can find out more and register here.