Tony Ellis Shares Practical Advice For MDM In Local Government

Tony Ellis Shares Practical Advice For MDM In Local Government

In this interview we talk at length with Tony Ellis, who at the time of interview was the CIO of Brent Council and responsible for delivering a major Master Data Management (MDM) initiative.

Tony discusses the challenges, tactics and benefits of launching a Master Data Management (MDM) hub within a local government organisation.


Please note that this interview was carried out during the UK IRM MDM conference in March 2011. Tony has since joined IBM in the role of Information Agenda Solutions Consultant, see end of document for update on his new role.


Data Quality Pro: What were the strategic objectives for the MDM initiative?

Tony Ellis: The key activity was to know who our customers were and where they were. The challenge in that was that the local government had been almost silo-based. You would have the council tax service, the housing service and the adult care service for example. By and large they grew up as separate and independent processes.

Whilst in Brent these services were very good and received high ratings, the challenge was to bring them all together and know what services we were offering to an individual at a specific location. The driver there was to provide a more joined up service both to deliver efficiencies for the council but it was obviously better for the individual too, for example they would no longer need to tell each part of the council they had moved address, they would just inform us once.

A sadder scenario of course is where one part of the council updates their records to indicate someone is deceased but another part fails to get this information.

Another driver is of course that we have a great deal of churn with people coming in and out of area, we have a high volume of rental housing, it was therefore important to ensure we had a clearer view across all the different parts of the council as to where an individual was located.

So that was the big driver and underpinned where we wanted to go. The councillors and the Chief Executive were strong supporters and very passionate about this concept of what became our One Council programme.

Data Quality Pro: Was this part of a larger IT transformation or consolidation?

Tony Ellis: There is some of that. We want to become known as a best-practice site for the management of information and data because we can see there is real value in doing so. 4 or 5 years ago we started to look at what information we had on what back office systems. I can’t say this initiative has replaced any of those systems as they are substantial systems but certainly it’s part of a drive to improve the quality of the information held within those systems.

One of the things we wanted to get out of this was that we could build a golden view of your record, like the best picture of you. If we think about it if I’ve got 10 systems going into that hub, potentially I could have 10 sources of date of birth. One of the things we can now do is using the software, we can say, go to this system first, because we trust it the most.

There is another key side to this, yes, we want a joined up customer service but we also wanted to explore how we could improve our care services for example. For example, from a child services perspective, we can say show me everyone who is living in a particular household. This becomes incredibly powerful information. Equally, this helps us considerably on the fraud side as well.

In these trying times something sitting at the centre of the organisation is vital, for example we had a major push on single person discount abuse, where people are claiming discounts and they shouldn’t be. Brent saved about £800,000 doing that. The hub didn’t do all of that as we were part of the wider National Fraud Initiative project but the hub does play a critical role in running daily checks on new discount applications.

So the hub played a big part in improving our income. The phrase I’ve used before is that it’s like having a can of WD40 at the centre of the organisation, no matter what government or other administration changes occur, we still have this central resource and asset that can be drawn upon to carry out a range of different services, it is incredibly useful.

Data Quality Pro: In technical terms, are you using the MDM hub as an operational hub, analytical hub or hybrid?

Tony Ellis: A bit of both operational and analytical. For example it is hooked into our CRM so our staff who provide day-to-day services are using it.

One of the learning curves was that many of our services support properties rather than individuals but their systems don’t tend to record who is living in the property.

When they got access to the hub they could begin to have a proper dialogue with the people who actually lived in the property, rather than leaving a card through the door saying “can you please contact me?”

On the analytics side, one of the things we do make use of ? is putting our data into our Geographical Information System (GIS). This means we can do profiling of the borough by creating heat maps and so on. Now that might sound a little simplistic, but it is actually really powerful. If you can start to show your population by certain profiles in a geographical basis then we can overlay where our offices are located, where are our key client groups. Yes, we were already doing stuff with MOSAIC, but that can be out of date, whereas with Brent we have a snapshot as of yesterday.

An analytics, combined with operational example, is that we have an Emergency Team used in the event of a local emergency. For instance if the emergency services respond to an incident such as a burst water main, power failure or fire, one of their challenges is “who do we need to evacuate first?”

What used to happen was that once a quarter someone took a report from the social care system which would print out maybe who is over 70 or disabled and needs priority. In the past you would hope that the person with the report would be available if the incident was on a weekend. Far from perfect.

Today that team have online 24/7 access to the hub so staff can put in details of the event location and address. They can immediately run a report of who is elderly, wheelchair bound or needs priority evacuation and within meetings this information is shared with the emergency services. That team really sing the praises of what this new capability. For us it’s a great story of how we’re pushing our data out to service providers. The hub drives real benefits because invariably these incidents happen at 4 in the morning on a weekend and now it has really improved the quality of service these teams can deliver.

Data Quality Pro: How is access enabled to this particular service?

Tony Ellis: They have a Business Objects Universe so they just run a query and pull out exactly what they need.

Data Quality Pro: The Government is exploring greater transition to Cloud-based solutions and services in Local Government, has that impacted your hub at all?

Tony Ellis: No, if anything it’s creating opportunities, in the form of a shared service opportunity for us to provide a service to other authorities which is something we’re looking at because we’ve got the skillsets and the experience of doing it. Personally I’d dropped the term “cloud” as it just causes confusion – just call it a managed service.

Data Quality Pro: We recently spoke to Ellie Fitzpatrick at Leeds City Council and she talked about an increased interest in authorities looking to share ideas, frameworks and explore these type of new initiatives, is this trend likely to continue?

Tony Ellis: Yes, absolutely. Leeds have had the same problem we have, different silos offering different services and you can’t really transform silos. You’re not going to get the savings you need, it takes too long and you’re only going to get 2-3% savings and you’re really looking for 15-20%.

What’s interesting with the coalition government in power is this concept of the individual being owning their own information and having a say in who can have it. . We’ve been working with a not for profit organisation called Mydex (http://mydex.org/) who have developed a “personal data store” or PDS.

A PDS is where citizens can securely store their information and then they can decide who they will share that information with. This can be private or public sector organisations. We’re interested in the PDS concept because if a citizen of Brent wants to establish an online relationship with us that offers us an opportunity to efficiently share information with them. We know who you are, where you live and as it comes direct from the citizen we would trust the information you give us, we can then start sharing more and more confidential information with you. Working with IBM and Mydex we completed a proof of concept which seamlessly takes the citizens data and loads into our IBM hub. Our claim to fame is that 2 of my team (Carol and Rita) are the first two people in the world to be set up on a personal data store. This all sets the base for the next challenge which is how do we move everything online and how can we securely share increasingly detailed information with our citizens.

You know, there is lots still to be done, we have limited resources in this area but I’m in the position I want to be as the council’s CIO. Brent is right at the stage now of deciding how it wants to do its custom transformation and it’s nice for CIO to be able to say it’s not information or technology that is holding back the transformation, it’s more a case of what do you want to do.

Data Quality Pro: So you’re opening up opportunities to innovate new services?

Tony Ellis: Yes, absolutely, for example opportunities to merge teams. I mean, one of the things you uncover in this type of project was that there would be whole teams that used to ring up other teams in Brent because they had the information Brent had that they didn’t have but was important to a business process. So there was this whole industry. One of the things we did when deciding on what data went into the hub was to cut all that out. I don’t have waste time ringing you up I can just look at the hub, that’s one of the things we’ve worked hard on.

Data Quality Pro: In terms of data governance, what additional organisational structure have you had to put in place to try and help collapse the silos?

Tony Ellis: That one is certainly a work in progress. We always engaged from the beginning when we did the tender selection, when we selected IBM Initiate, we had something like 15 people involved and a lot of them came from the back office. I wanted them involved from the very beginning so that they understood what a client index was and all the technology involved, they’ve stayed onboard.

We’ve always maintained links with what we used to call sensible souls, the key back-office areas which in industry terms we obviously call data stewards, they understand their respective systems intimately.

We’re just at the phase now where we’re starting to push out change of service information. So for instance, one part of the council knows that you moved but another part of the council doesn’t, we’re pushing those solutions out to different parts of the business.

I can think of a lot of councils that have done a lot more on the data quality side but frankly we’re limited by resources, I’m learning from other people who are pushing forward with things like data quality dashboards and that side of it. We’ve got the capability of profiling our data and discovering where there are issues, we’ve done a lot of work on that. For example, one of the things we would like to do is to stop writing to you, instead we would like to ring or text you and obviously we need your telephone number.

I think we’ve probably got a bit more of an embryonic data governance side of things but the priority remains really on the operational side, getting the operational teams to make use of the information.

It’s been purely a resource challenge.

Data Quality Pro: In terms of implementing the technology, what was the overall process that you followed?

Tony Ellis: We did an EU tender to select Initiate. This is my second hub, I had done this at Hammersmith and Fulham as well. I used a different product at Hammersmith and Fulham. The spec at Brent reflected my experience which was obviously very useful.

We have a standard extract we run across all of the systems. In terms of going live we would do 3 iterations, loading data in and fine-tuning the system so that we got to the stage where we knew it matched as much as it was possible before it started giving us incorrect matches, again we had the business involved in that. We did 3 lots of that which was incredibly useful because we kept refining the matching rules until we were confident with the accuracy.

Unless you’ve got total confidence with your matching rules then the business can turn around and say, hey I’ve found a dodgy match here so we worked very hard to ensure that we locked down the matching as much as we could do.

Data Quality Pro: For false positive and false negative analysis, are you pushing that responsibilities to the data stewards, how are you resourcing the matching process?

Tony Ellis: I’ve got one key resources that looks after the main matching process for me but we do push stuff down to some of the business areas so they can see through Initiate what is going on. One of the things it flags up of course is where you’ve got duplicates amongst back-office systems and sometimes even a back-office system doesn’t recognise this.

One of the early successes that we’ve probably used a lot is that we had a missing child alert in another authority.

When a child goes missing, different authorities alert each other. We picked up a child alert from a south coast local authority.

The children services officer looked on the children services back-office system which is quite a common back-office system and couldn’t find them.

Fortunately, they then looked on the index and found that they were part of a housing benefit case. What it showed us was the power of the hub, without that joined up view we would never have found them. The local authority that issued the alert also had a slightly different spelling and the back-office system wasn’t smart enough to match on the name whereas the hub is designed that way.

Again, a wonderful anecdotal story for everyone on the project team, we all looked at each other and said well, that’s enough for us, it’s proved its value.

So it’s that kind of story that gives you the momentum and says everything that you want to say for a public services organisation.

Data Quality Pro: Obviously matching is ultimately dependent on a certain level of quality so did you have to go back to the back-office systems and do a lot of data quality improvement?

Tony Ellis: No, this is the argument around whether you should tidy up everything before you move it or just fix it afterwards. That’s one you can go down the pub and discuss all day long.

We just put all the data in and the main work, a one-off, was to refine the matching algorithm. After that it just runs.

When we put new data sets in, which we’ve had to do, we really haven’t had to do an awful lot of work. It’s just another dataset.

Of course you have to remember that it can be perfectly valid for the data to be different in different systems. For example in some of the community groups we have people can legitimately have more than one name. Again, the real value comes from not forcing each system to adopt the same name

Data Quality Pro: One thing that cropped up in our recent interview with Leeds City Council was Data Connects. What’s the idea behind Data Connects?

Tony Ellis: The idea behind Data Connects (http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/capitalambition/projects/dataconnects.htm) was to form a small group of individuals from other areas that were doing this sort of work. We were already ringing each other up and sharing experiences so we said why not let’s get together a form a group. Becoming CIO at Brent gave me the opportunity to act on what seemed like a good idea and set the group up.

That was the logic behind Data Connects so I ended up chairing it. The idea was that we would become a best-practice group for MDM in local government but we then did a lot of work with central government e.g. DWP and the Tell Us Once project.

We managed to get funding from London Connects to create a best-practice report focused on how to build a hub.

So our role as a group was supplier neutral. It was more about the process and how did we do it.

We also created a business benefits return on investment calculator for any local authority looking to master its customer data and any local authority can download it. Many a supplier is using it too!

I was always fortunate in that I was able to sell the hub vision without having to create a huge report saying it’s going to save £4.50 because it’s incredibly difficult to put a cost on good quality data.

The people who have wanted to do it over the last couple of years have had to create some very detailed business cases so that was the logic behind the calculator.

We also did a data quality toolkit which is also on the web.

The great thing about the group was that we were able to bring together all the good work that a number of councils were carrying out in this area. None of us could do it all so pooling our knowledge and experiences will hopefully help other organisations. I should say that at conferences there’s been many a big private sector company who’ve come forward to say they too badly need to do similar MDM type work so hopefully our work will benefit them too!.

So the whole idea was to just put it all together and just publish it and I guess the difference between us and the private sector was that we were happy to share. Obviously, speaking to companies in the private sector, they really want to keep information internally to retain a commercial edge. We just wanted to share as much as we could.

The group no longer formally meets as we’ve become a virtual group. A combination of doing everything we set out to do, my moving to the private sector to join IBM (to be full time on helping the public sector) and an end to our limited funding meant it was timely to go virtual. We like to think we went out in style working with “Tell Us Once” and some of the other central government initiatives. For example, members of the group were able to work wit central government colleagues on moves to improve the quality of the Electoral Register.

Data Quality Pro: The Electoral Register, can you explain?

Tony Ellis: Yes, one of the Government’s aims is to improve the quality of the ER and they are looking at data matching as part of the solution here. On top of the matching there is also the issue of making sure that so called “hard to reach” groups are on the ER eg 1-24 year olds.

The other advantage of the hub for us that I forgot to mention is in justifying our true population numbers. Councils receive central government grant funding and that the level of grant is determined, in part, by the number of people living within the authority. Unfortunately the government figures appear to under estimate just how many people live in Brent. Why does this matter? Well because we receive £600 per person in grant, sadly for us the government estimates we have just over 250,000. Via the hub we would argue that as of yesterday we had 284,000, a big costly difference. It’s topical at the moment because we’re using the client index to support the 2011 census.


About Tony Ellis

I’ve now joined IBM’s Information Agenda team as a subject matter expert supporting the teams who work with the public sector. 

The great thing from my perspective is that I now get to work with a range of public sector organisations who are all trying to bring shape and form to their information management assets.  

Across the public sector senior managers are beginning to realise the business benefits, savings that can be gained through the efficient management of information and data. The other great advantage of my role is that I have access to an excellent range of solutions that can really help the public sector. I’m also a free resource for public sector customers so feel free to drop me a line.

Contact Tony Ellis on LinkedIn : http://uk.linkedin.com/pub/tony-ellis/12/5b9/63