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June 4, 2021updated 21 Jun 2021 4:15pm

London Borough of Camden CDIO: From digital marketing to local government

Tariq Khan talks about his unconventional path to public sector technology leadership and the value of social purpose in work

By Pete Swabey

Before his current role as chief digital and information officer for London Borough of Camden, Tariq Khan’s career had mostly focused on building digital products for corporate marketing departments. It was a far cry from providing public services to one of the UK’s most diverse communities during a pandemic. But the experience instilled a customer centricity, Khan tells Tech Monitor, that chimed with Camden’s citizen-focused outlook.

Camden CDIO

Camden’s commitment to tackling inequality offered Tariq Khan an opportunity to apply his technology leadership experience to work with “genuine social value”. (Photo by Alena Veasey/Shutterstock)

Khan cut his teeth at digital marketing agencies building products and teams for corporate clients including HSBC, the BBC and Unilever. “My core specialism revolves around building teams, processes and products that deliver a customer-centred approach, through the lens of technology and data,” he explains. “I’m lucky because that is a very transferable skill that goes across lots of different disciplines.”

Nevertheless, it might not seem to be the obvious background for a local government technology leader whose department supports 600 lines of business, ranging from waste management to adult social care. But when approached for the role, Khan saw an opportunity to apply his customer-centric perspective to a social purpose.

“I was reflecting on what I wanted my next role to be,” he recalls. “The question I asked myself is, ‘What’s going to give me the most motivation and resilience to do my best work?’ I broke it down to three things: an organisation with a clear vision, led by a board with a customer-centred approach, and delivering genuine social value. I’ve been lucky enough to have the first two, but never the third. I found that in external activities – I was involved in diversity and inclusion, I do a lot of mentorship – but it never even got in my head that you could have all three things at once.”

Camden ticked all three boxes, he says. “Camden has a very strong social values streak, and they’re very keen on tackling inequality,” he says. The borough – which accounts for 2% of the UK economy, Khan says – is home to big businesses and some wealthy neighbourhoods but also some of the poorest communities in Europe. “These are big, crunchy problems so they’re looking for new ways of doing things.”

Digital innovation in the pandemic

Since joining the council last year, Khan’s immediate focus has been rapid innovation in support of its pandemic response. “There’s been some digital platforms that we’ve stood up really quickly in the last few months,” he explains. One example is a new system to deliver aid to communities in need. “We’ve used a lot of disparate data sets, synthesised those into heat maps around the borough in order to understand where the need is, and then used that with our voluntary services so that they can work out their logistics.”

My preconceptions were that there would be issues around speed, around bureaucracy [and] a lack of appetite for change. None of those things have been proved to be founded.

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The speed with which these projects have been achieved dispelled some of Khan’s assumptions about working in local government. “My preconceptions were that there would be issues around speed, around bureaucracy [and] a lack of appetite for change. None of those things have been proved to be founded.”

And that speed has shown the council’s senior leadership what can be achieved, and how quickly, through digital innovation, he adds. “Now the task is to make that sustainable.”

Technology transformation at Camden Council

Khan is now developing his longer-term priorities. “One is making sure that we deliver a positive and inspiring experience, not just online, but [through] offline touchpoints as well.” Here, Khan is drawing on his private sector exposure to cross-channel CX design. “How can we make sure that we’re looking at the experience not just from a channel perspective, but from a citizen’s point of view?” A simple but effective tool, the Camden CDIO says, is QR codes. “That’s a really low-cost way of being able to connect online and offline experiences to the citizens.”

Another focus area will be data science. “One of our key themes is how do we focus our [social care] strategies around early intervention and prevention? If we’re intelligent with our data, it can be a really powerful tool. When you think about all the data from those 600 lines of business, the insight you could get out of that is a huge opportunity.”

Khan acknowledges, though, that there is “understandably” a lot of fear among citizens on how their data is used. The council is, therefore, developing ‘terms of engagement’ to govern its data use. “We have to put a really big focus on making sure we’re ethical and transparent.”

A third objective is to introduce new ways of working, especially around product-centred development. “I’m trying to move us from a project mindset to a bit more of a product mindset, where we’re looking to increment, test and learn, [and] build capabilities as needs are shifting,” Khan says. “That product-centred methodology is […] new to local government.”

Tariq Khan, CDIO at London Borough of Camden.

He advises against being too evangelical about new ways of working, however. “It doesn’t work,” he says. Instead, his approach has been “not just [to] come in and say this is how things are, but to be respectful of the knowledge and the values that people have”.

Legacy work in local government

Like any large and long-lived organisation, the borough has a legacy IT estate to contend with, including many line-of-business applications. “We have a system for council tax, a system for libraries, a system to pay your road tax,” Khan explains. “It really is huge.”

Khan’s philosophy of working with legacy while remaining focused on customer outcomes is what he calls a “twin channels” approach. “You want to talk about your vision and where you want to get to with your legacy systems, and you want a strong level of interoperability,” he explains. “But you also need to deliver near-term value for all the people that you are serving day to day.”

The long-term vision and the need for near-term value may well diverge. “Sometimes, you will incur technical debt, and you will [encounter] problems that will set you back from your long-term vision,” Khan explains. The key is to have robust discussions at a senior level, he says, so that trade-offs between the two ‘channels’ are made deliberately and with open eyes.

Digital marketing to local government technology leadership may not be a conventional career route, but it is one that Khan would recommend to any of his former peers. “My observation is that a lot of them have become successful but as they’ve got older there’s a need to deliver more social value,” he says. So far, his work at Camden has fulfilled that need. “It’s been some of the most nourishing and motivating few months that I’ve had in my career.”

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