Interview with Jos Creese
We asked our Strategic Adviser a few questions about his CIO and CDO experience, his passions, and the big challenges suppliers face trying to succeed in the public sector.
Jos has over 30 years IT leadership experience and has held a number of CIO positions over his career. As a Strategic Adviser at Advice Cloud, he provides our clients with the knowledge on how they can have more success in the public sector. We quizzed him on exactly how they can do just that, and more…
For over a decade you were a CIO and CDO for Hampshire County Council, leading a range of ground-breaking shared services and achieving national recognition with a range of awards for IT innovation. Tell us a bit about that?
Hampshire had some great IT and digital initiatives, grown from a culture that encouraged risk taking (within reason!), innovation and an entrepreneurial ethos. Success doesn’t just come from one person; I also had the good fortune of having a great team around me of some of the most talented IT professionals I’ve ever worked with.
Together we moved the boundaries on what was possible by exploiting IT as a business asset (rather than just seeing it as a technology service). By treating IT as a strategic enabler of change for the business, rather than just a service responding to service requests, we did ‘digital transformation’ before the term had even been coined.
Examples included some of the biggest and most successful shared services in the UK, personalised IT solutions and cloud-based IT models (before ‘cloud’ was invented). It sometimes seemed that the rest of industry was trying to keep up with us, including our suppliers.
In each IT leadership role, my job has always been to ensure the risks were well-managed and the politics were addressed, more than being a technology visionary. I needed to give space to the rest of the IT team to succeed, and I think we showed that the public sector can be as (if not more) commercial and business-like than the private sector.
We did get wide recognition, and it was one of the reasons I was asked to support a range of national government IT programmes, where things were not so far ahead at the time.
Your passions have always been local government and health and social care. What’s the opportunity there for suppliers?
I’ve been passionate about public services IT throughout my career. The opportunity to use technology advances to benefit the public and communities is just amazing, and one which few industries can offer in the same way. More than that, the projects in the public sector are often very complex and varied, in terms of business function as well as technology use, so there is a big challenge, which is exciting.
Areas such as health, local government and social care are classic examples of this – in fact I would say local public services in general – and the opportunity for suppliers is enormous. But it’s not easy! That’s why I do what I do now, helping suppliers and public sector clients to work together to maximise the returns we can all collectively get from new IT. The challenge lies in the complexity, risk, resource constraints, pressures for change (and the amount of change), coupled with the variability of different public service organisations.
For example, anyone who thinks local and central government are broadly the same cannot conceive how different they are in practice (or perhaps see why I wanted to spend so long working in local government after spending time in Whitehall). Equally, even within the local government market there are major differences in politics, geography, urban/rural balance, demography, size and governance structures – suppliers need to understand this in order to smooth the path to a successful partnership and IT delivery.
In your opinion what is the 3 biggest challenges for suppliers trying to succeed in the public sector?
Just three! Well, I think I would have to pick my top bugbears:
- Planning – is often not good enough, or there is just a lack of sector understanding and empathy. You might think this is more of an issue for SMEs, but look at how the biggest outsourcers and systems integrators have struggled in recent years. It is always because they under-estimated the complexity, the need for flexibility and the risks. The result is over-optimism about what IT can really achieve or in the range of promised savings and productivity improvements
- People – it’s often hard to find the right person to talk to in the public sector, or even the right group of people. How do you engage, and when, and with whom, to make a difference? It’s sometimes about over-complicated processes, especially in procurement, but its more about people and culture and how you can create effective relationships
- Process – suppliers usually have a business model enshrined in their contracts, account management and financial planning. A business case and a proposal in a complex environment such as a council requires a great deal of skill (and luck) to get right. ‘Over-egg’ it and you lose a contract to a lower cost (and maybe naive) competitor. Under-price and you lose money or risk a collapsing contract when you need to ask for more. Subtle flexibility in the right places is needed.
How can suppliers overcome these challenges?
Most of these barriers and challenges are at least mitigated, if not overcome, by anticipating them. For example, recognise the variability, risk, complexity, cost, and need for flexibility, and you will quickly realise that a ‘one-size fits all’ commercial model could turn out to be a supplier straitjacket, not just a client restraint.
I’ve seen too many major IT contracts announced in a ‘fanfare of trumpets’ and Press coverage, only to crash and burn a few years later to a ‘fanfare of naysayers’ and the same Press reporters eager for another good story.
Above all, beware the publicity stunts, political kudos and mouth-watering contract returns – none of these sits well with complex IT projects in the public sector. I’ve seen plenty of IT suppliers who think that the public sector can’t be that complex, and that public services are naïve, or perhaps will tolerate poor performance – eventually chickens come home to roost, every time.
As well as understanding the sector, success in a tendering situation starts before any advert is placed. Most of the successful IT delivery programmes stem from where a supplier has really built a true partnership model that can survive the buffeting of IT delivery problems along that way, without destroying the relationship or the financial model.
What’s the value you bring to Advice Cloud clients?
I’m pretty passionate about the potential of IT to transform the public sector. In fact, I want the public sector to set the standard in areas such as effective use of IT for public good, data ethics, well-designed personal systems, inclusivity and value for money.
Yet I often see frustrating problems for both clients and IT suppliers, and many of these are entirely self-inflicted, through good intentions compromised by poor process and delivery: solving this is what gets me up in the morning!
Working with Advice Cloud gives me the chance to help SME IT providers in particular to understand the risks and the opportunities of working with the public sector, especially local public services such as Councils, Police and Health bodies. Through Advice Cloud, I offer clients confidential surgeries, coaching, advisory and comprehensive workshops, to help them to position their products and services for mutual benefit to the sector and to the supplier.
What is perhaps different (and I hope uniquely valuable) in what I offer, is a deep, broad and current range of experience, knowledge and contacts across the IT industry and especially in the public sector. It is as both ‘poacher’ and ‘gamekeeper’ that I guide Advice Cloud’s IT supplier partners on best practice in product positioning and client engagement.
Thank you for your time, Jos!