In 2004, one London borough council went from being a potential poster-child for open source advocates to near public enemy number one. Newham, in the East of the capital, close to the site of planned Olympic village, had been carrying out extensive trials of Linux on the desktop and server software, but in a u-turn move decided that the systems were just "too risky" and instead opted for Windows XP.
Richard Steel, the then head of ICT, clearly made the right move as far as council bosses were concerned and has now been appointed chief information officer. Yet at the time, he was roundly criticised by open source supporters for simply dangling the threat of migrating away from proprietary software as a bargaining tactic in licence negotiations with Microsoft. The strategy was dubbed "doing a Newham" and was allegedly used by other private- and public-sector organisations.
Understandably, Steel denies charges that he somehow set back the public sector adoption of open source by opting to stick with Microsoft. Instead he claims that the decision to stay with Microsoft was one driven by functionality.
"One of the issues that swayed us in favour of Microsoft was how far behind open source was in the mobile area, and we use Windows Mobile extensively on devices such as handhelds," Steel says.
So enamoured is Steel of Microsoft that the council has actually implemented a policy of using the Redmond company's software as a default option on every ICT purchase. This process of standardisation is known as the "Why not Microsoft?" approach, which accords the vendor preferred supplier status. "This means what is says. If Microsoft has a product to do the job, we'll use it, if not we'll go elsewhere. We also use open source products in our infrastructure, especially in the network management domain, but Microsoft understands that," says Steel.
Newham's close relationship with Microsoft also means that it is one of the early adopters of the newly released Vista operating system. As part of its role as an early adopter, Newham joined a Vista shared learning group, which was chaired by Steel and included 10 other London local authorities that were also Microsoft customers. This involved undertaking proof of concept work in areas such as performance management, assistive technologies and telecare for health-related matters, and flexible working.
Vista is one of the central elements in a major overhaul of systems and processes at the council, which employs about 800 staff catering to the needs of around 250,000 citizens. The 120-strong ICT department is central to the organisation. Steel claims his recent promotion is a sign of how important the council takes the contribution of IT.
"It's quite significant that we've created a CIO job in Newham. It's about IT coming of age. It signifies that it's no longer about techies in a back room, but that the council now recognises that IT is fundamental to an effective business," he says.
Steel claims the change means he is free to focus more on strategy and is in a better position to work with directors and service heads. "It's about creating buy-in, understanding strategy and exploiting IT rather than just delivering it."
The fact that Steel and his team feel they understand the development and planning behind Vista means they have a better insight into the potential risk factors involved in early adoption. As a member of Microsoft's technology development programme, the organisation had been working with the product for a long time.
"There have been something like five million downloads in Vista's alpha and beta stages so it's probably been exposed to more testing than any other product in history," he says. "So it wasn't much of a risk and when you consider the advantages, they more than outweigh any perceived risk that you're taking."
One such advantage is the ability to shut Vista down in the evenings to save on energy costs and conform to the council's emerging green agenda. Staff are still able to undertake maintenance and re-start PCs again remotely in the morning to avoid staff frustration, but further savings can also be generated during the day by using sleep mode and other power-saving functions.
"This has a massive energy-saving potential and translates into real cash — as much as £50 per PC per year," Steel points out.
But all of this does not mean to say that Newham is...
... upgrading to Vista across the board immediately. Although the current feeling is that it would like to do so as soon as possible, such a move will not be decided until the council has hosted a day-long strategy workshop in January, attended by vendors such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.
Aside from the investment in Vista, other initiatives under consideration include the introduction of virtualisation technology to separate out production and development environments without having to duplicate capacity and to improve business continuity capabilities.
At the same time as Newham started its IT restructuring exercise, it also changed the way that it accounted for IT expenditure. Rather than investing on a project basis or as a result of under-spends elsewhere, the IT budget is now worked out as a percentage of revenue.
This means, says Steel, that "for the next 10 years, we can plan our investments, which includes built-in technology refreshes. It's been quite a big step forward and we're working strategically on a three-year horizon now."
At the start of 2006, this approach to financing was further refined by the creation of a Gateway board, which meets monthly. Permanent members include Steel, the head of legal services, customer services and business improvement, but other service leads are also expected to attend if they have items on the agenda.
"The budget has remained reasonably static, but that belies the fact that the workload has grown enormously. So for us, any new investment has to go to the Gateway board, which looks at the business case, how any investment can pay for itself and bring improvements to services and also how risk can be properly managed," says Steel. "Each project has to show how it can contribute to the council and the board prioritises projects on that basis."
As to what the council is currently focusing its budget on, meanwhile, there are three main goals. The first is to increase efficiency, boost savings and improve services. This is driven by both internal pressures and external ones such as the 2004 Gershon review, which stipulates that, by 2008, all public authorities must reduce internal costs by 2.5 percent each year in order to reinvest the money in front-line services.
The second aim involves creating joined up services within the council to replace the federation of often quite separate organisations that existed in the past, while the third entails developing closer working partnerships with other public bodies such as the health service and the police to build community networks.
As a result, Newham has spent the last three years revamping its IT infrastructure in order to put the foundations in place to address these issues. This has seen it standardise its systems and networks as much as possible to ensure that they are stable and efficient. As Steel explains: "It's so important to have an effective infrastructure. If you start with the basic and get them right, you can really make IT work for you."
The council has major plans to consolidate its two main campuses in Stratford and East Ham along with as many as 70 smaller offices into new headquarters in Stratford. The project will form part of a larger town centre regeneration project and should be complete by 2010.
"We're now getting rid of the worst of our accommodation as part of a big staff valuation initiative, and while we'll take on new premises where necessary on a short-term basis, the aim is to increase flexible- and home-working and hot-desking," Steel says. "Vista scores here because it's got BitLocker technology, which enables you to secure mobile devices if they get lost and ensure that information remains safe."
One of the key parts of the mobility drive at Newham is a project called "Manager on the Move" which lets senior staff access information while out of the office in a bid to speed decision-making. The scheme has now been rolled out and its findings are being fed back into the council's broader flexible working programme.
Newham is also evaluating whether to implement a software adoption policy for software vendors to sign up to, which would require that they co-ordinate their support for releases of third party offerings such as databases to make management and maintenance easier. "It's to ensure that we can be confident in moving forward together, although it will take time to implement as you have to give the market time to respond," Steel says.
A third proposal on the table revolves around convergence. "In five year's time, because of the move to IP, a converged infrastructure will be a reality and the fact that we're one of the five Olympic Boroughs is an added stimulus. So, for example, where there are new builds, we want to ensure that technology goes in that enables us to interact with the community," Steel explains.
This could mean using technology such as digital TV or various mobile devices to enable residents to access telecare services for physical and mental health-related issues or to use council systems to pay bills online. It could also mean providing each citizen with a basic package of broadband services as well as introducing a borough-wide WiMax network.
"The way that I see things going is to have an ICT infrastructure that supports the whole community from individuals to businesses and schools. It's about providing one cohesive infrastructure rather than just a council one or a health one or whatever because the management of information is key to the betterment of the whole community," Steel adds.