How to explain to CEOs why fixing the plumbing matters

by Eddie Copeland

How do you explain to a CEO why fixing the plumbing matters?

At the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI), this is not an academic question. The need to find an answer is both real and pressing. For while LOTI’s activities are primarily driven by each borough’s Chief Information or Chief Digital Officer (CIO and CDO), ultimately, we need to demonstrate value to the CEOs whose organisations we aim to help.

On first glance, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

After all, LOTI consistently preaches an outcomes-based methodology. That means we always start with the end in mind. Ideally, that end should be a real-world outcome: a noticeable improvement to service delivery and to real people’s lives. It’s right there in our mission statement.

But — you guessed it — there’s a challenge, and hence this article.

Laying the groundwork

In order to set ourselves up to deliver real-world improvements consistently and sustainably, we first need to lay some groundwork. In Year 1, LOTI is therefore very consciously and explicitly focusing attention on projects designed to “fix the plumbing”: addressing the barriers that hold organisations back from benefiting from technology and data’s true potential.

Those projects broadly fall into three areas:

First, improving the digital skills pipeline. As part of our Digital Leadership workstream, LOTI boroughs are working to recruit at least 100 digital apprentices to develop the supply of digital talent available to London’s local authorities.

Second, improving technology procurement. As part of our Sharing and Reusing and Better Partnerships workstreams, we launched City Tools to map out the different technologies used by each borough to power their various functions and services. We’ll be developing that into a more sophisticated tool and offer, and using the data to help boroughs better articulate their needs to the market, share their experiences and procure in a more coordinated and informed way.

Third, improving data collaboration. I’ve written previously about the many barriers that prevent public sector organisations from fully realising the value of their data. We’re chipping away at these by laying the ground rules for our approach in a joint statement of intent on data collaboration, standardising boroughs’ approach to information governance and establishing a working group on smart street infrastructure to ensure boroughs don’t sleepwalk into perpetuating with IoT the very data silos that hold them back with legacy technology.

Why start with these?

Candidly, because these are the issues that the sector has complained about for years.

Back in 2013, I wrote my first think tank report (along with Cameron Scott and Sarah Fink) discussing the problems for government caused by a lack of skills, the challenges of legacy tech and the barriers to using data. We were far from the first to mention any of those things. Yet seven years on we still seem to be lamenting the lack of progress on these same issues.

Fixing them is fundamental to enabling the level of digital transformation — in the Tom Loosemore sense — that we want to see in the future. CIOs and CDOs get this.

But here’s the rub. Fixing the plumbing does not easily and directly lead to the kind of visible real-world outcomes that rightly occupy CEOs’ attention.

For example, ensuring local government addresses the negative elements of their supplier relationships and insisting on having open APIs doesn’t lead to better services overnight. Spending time on such things risks looking like technologists nerding out on irrelevant technical tweakery.

So how to explain to CEOs that this is vital work? There seem to be two core challenges at play.

First, no single fix in and of itself leads to better real-world outcomes.

Second, the causal chain from fixing the plumbing to delivering real-world outcomes is often long and sometimes indirect.

For example, ensuring that all technology procured by local authorities provides an open API does not in itself directly lead to better outcomes. However, when combined with a more standardised approach to information governance, adoption of relevant data standards, consistent sharing of data sets etc, it should significantly reduce the time it takes to collaborate with data on projects that really can improve real services and citizens’ lives. Things like helping provide support to vulnerable tenants before they fall into financial crisis; help plan SEN bus routes, and making it easier to find the cycling routes that have least air pollution.

Seen like this, we might decide to adopt the analogy of the car mechanic.

I confess that I fall into the category of people who enjoy driving but who have little idea what happens under the bonnet. When I take my car in for a service, the mechanic shows me the long checklist of technical things they had to check and put right. I trust in, and defer to, their professional competence. I feel confident that they know what’s needed to ensure my car is working, leaving me to achieve the one outcome I care about: being able to drive from A to B.

In a similar way, perhaps we should encourage CEOs to consider themselves like that driver. Their goal is to deliver real-world outcomes. We could ask them to trust in the professional judgement of their public sector mechanics — CIOs and CDOs — to ensure they have a well-oiled machine capable of reaching that destination. They shouldn’t expect to understand all the technical detail.

Yet that feels pretty unsatisfying. It’s also a bit of a cop-out given how often we call for CEOs to get better at understanding all things digital.

The missing middle: capabilities

So here’s a different approach that might be worth a try.

If it’s too much to leap directly from fixing the plumbing to real-world outcomes, perhaps we might offer a better narrative by spelling out a middle step, namely: capabilities.

Put simply:

We fix the plumbing in order to enhance organisations’ capabilities to deliver real-world outcomes.

In fact, this should be thought of as a virtuous circle:

Diagram showing how fixing the plumbing enhances organisations’ capabilities to deliver real-world outcomes.

In the example above, which focuses on LOTI’s work to fix the plumbing on data collaboration, boroughs enhance their ability to make evidence-based decisions, compare their performance to others’, and model events into the future. With those enhanced capabilities they are better able to tackle real-world problems and deliver real-world outcomes.

What this means for LOTI

This is more than merely a point of communication. It also helps inform how LOTI needs to operate.

It’s no use simply conducting projects that fix the plumbing without regard to the other two segments.

Where we’re working to fix the plumbing, we should be doing so specifically to enhance capabilities that improve boroughs’ ability to tackle real-world problems. We can only determine if we’re doing that well by proactively working with colleagues to deliver some real-world outcomes.

Those outcomes provide the direction and rationale for where CIOs and CDOs can invest their time fruitfully while providing tangible evidence of the enabling role of technology and data to CEOs.

In fact, LOTI’s sweet spot is to be working at the centre of all those segments.

LOTI at the centre of fixing the plumbing, enhancing capabilities and delivering real-world outcomes

That’s why, as well as recruiting digital apprentices, we’re also helping apprentices and their managers to build relationships that result in higher-performing teams in each organisation.

It’s why we’re working to identify specific service areas where legacy technology is holding back teams from working in the ways they desire and exploring how they can procure technology differently.

And it’s why we’re now shortlisting specific ideas for projects that can bring London’s public sector data to bear on real issues that affect Londoners.


Fixing the plumbing is a vital means to an important end, but the path is not direct. Whether CIO, CDO or CEO, we all care about the intermediate step: public sector organisations having the enhanced capabilities they need to thrive in the digital age.

I hope that’s a unifying theme that will make sense to CEOs and help LOTI boroughs work together to achieve results that truly matter.

Does it work for you?

Find me on Twitter

You may also like