Phil Pavitt, CIO of Transport for London (TfL), has a central theme and he doesn't want you to forget it. That theme is the customer. One year into the role, Pavitt believes he and his team have made significant improvements to TfL and he has a vision of what a CIO and their team can achieve that goes beyond what most people believe a public organization is capable of.

"Everything we do here is about the customer," Pavitt states. It is not a quick appeasement for marketing or PR types, customer focus is the Pavitt model to being a CIO and he has used it to great effect at every organization he has been with. The reason being? "Customer-centricity answers most questions posed."

Since joining TfL Pavitt has focused on customer group number one, the TfL employee. "Once that is right the focus is on the real Londoner experience, which will coincide with [the Olympics in] 2012," he says of part two of his customer focus. Since joining he has remodelled his team to be customer-centric in their thinking and drastically reduced the number of consultants working at TfL, who he points out are not customer-oriented people.

To achieve customer satisfaction for both employees and travellers, he intends to use the same technology, for example tracking systems that alert TfL staff where a bus is on its route will also be used to alert passengers.

Team effort

Pavitt talks of his team constantly and not only those who followed him to TfL's Victoria Street HQ from the private sector. He is just as enthusiastic about the talent pool he inherited. "I rely on the people around me," he says.

Talking with Pavitt, you sense he relishes not just a challenge, but challenging people. Orthodox views are few and far between and no one is spared the challenge. Vendors have had their "green IT" marketing messages and enterprise pricing models questioned. CIOs as a group of people are certainly not placed on a dais, nor is typical management speak of sporting analogies sprayed about like winners' champagne. "I find them insulting, and I'm football mad," he says in his rapid-fire conversation.

The role of a CIO to Pavitt is not about being a leading striker, it is about people and leadership. "There was decision constipation here," he says of his arrival and how his methods are about empowering people to make decisions based on what the customer needs and a clear strategy. He says he brings "ego and passion to the role", and then finds advocates for what he believes in and people who will support his theme - the customer.

It is easy to see how he builds loyal and successful teams up. At first his abrasive focused attitude takes you back, but as conversation unfolds you realize that he knows his own mind and much of what he stresses makes sense. He is also old and wise enough to have tried and tested what he says. There is also considerable self-belief, something he says he got from his first job as a BT debt collector in London.

"You've got to believe in yourself to do that," he says. Over the years the self-belief has grown, based on the successes he has had. "You ask an organisation like this if they really want you and they say yes. It gives you a good feeling." Unlike many leaders, he is insistent that this self-belief must leave a positive legacy. He has no truck with CIOs who build a team or project that, as soon as they leave, falters. He believes in sustainability, "Otherwise, what a waste of time."

TfL is Pavitt's first move into the public sector, after a semi-retirement when he finished with utilities company Centrica. He says the switch into the public sector appears a larger change than it is, and he talks passionately about the role. It wasn't Pavitt who was concerned about him taking the role; it was those offering it, TfL. "Through the conversations with TfL and the government, people kept saying we are worried that you will become frustrated." Their fear was tied to the widely held belief in the public sector that you don't ever fix anything, you just make it a little better.

Challenging beliefs

"I think that statement is outrageous," Pavitt says with a shake of the head. It was enough to motivate him to join "to give lie to that statement". When he arrived he was pleased to discover that overall the IT was good, although not as joined up as he prefers. "Culturally, what we had was a team with low morale. Here I have found some of the cleverest people in technology, " he says.

One year on, morale is high and people are jumping off well-known commercial ships to be a part of the TfL transformation. "People who are coming here are leaving companies like BP and Fujitsu. I ask them why they want to come. It is the idea of being involved in something very live that they will be using and will be used for 2012."

The passion for the product can be seen in Pavitt and no doubt transpires into the team. "I am affecting the journeys of real customers. What makes the job amazing is the variety. In a day I will be discussing the iBus announcement systems, talking to a Tube maintenance worker about tagging himself to a line overnight using RFID for safety. You are flipping between major pieces of work all day." The job is, of course, not without its challenges, the most significant, according to Pavitt is that the Tube is a Victorian solution for a 21st century world.

Into the future

"What I like about the civil service is that you are taking the long view. You are building for 10 years' time, so architectural and platform, and I don't mean railway platform, decisions are very important."

Not content with re-energising IT at TfL, Pavitt has become involved in the Greater London Authority (GLA) CIO Group and has once again spearheaded a change in mind set. "We are starting to buy and think together," he says. Although TfL had some good IT on his arrival, Pavitt is critical of governmental IT. "Government has gone through fashions of IT faster than anyone," he says, and he sees little point in ideas like Project Flex for shared services.

Pavitt's role at TfL is not just about refocusing an IT team and joining up disparate systems; Pavitt and TfL share a bold vision of how travel in a historic, busy and commercially vital city can be improved through information. Real- time information delivery about travel schedules, delays, routes and alternatives is the ultimate ambition for Pavitt's team.

"You can do it today in single silos, but in 2012, millions of people will descend on this city and they are going to need information," he says. This vision was already in place when Pavitt joined, but his recruitment was very much about the execution of the idea. He admits it is "getting towards the mega-city concept", but doesn't apologise. Instead, he has a dream of the information-based services and transactions he could offer Londoners.

His vision encompasses analysing Oyster data, correlated with the Tube map, knowing what stations a customer joins and alights the 144-year-old network and asking passengers to input their body weight. For example, TfL could offer travellers an ideal fitness regime based purely on getting off the Tube one or two stops earlier. It could all be available on a BlackBerry or mobile phone in time for the Olympics.

To some, the semantic web and data monitoring is too close to Patrick McGoohan's super-state community depicted in the TV show The Prisoner, but Pavitt is sanguine and believes London is the place to develop such groundbreaking information services. "London attracts all sorts of people and they want to experiment here," he says confidently. Statistics back up his belief, with London being a global hub for adoption of mobile services and social networks which rely on sharing personal data and allowing others to manipulate it for a service.

Data management

The London Underground carried one billion passengers last year, and 10 million TfL users have an Oyster card, the RFID pass that allows travellers to access and pay for their travel on the TfL network. "All Londoners owe a debt to the dedicated staff of London Underground who work so hard to get so much out of the oldest Tube network in the world," Tim O'Toole the London Underground managing director has said.

There are also over 8,000 buses plying the historic streets, while the Congestion Charge has forced car usage down by 21 percent and raised £123 million (US$243 million) for the financial year 2006/07, which has been re-invested in public transport. Significant numbers, and numbers that are just the tip of the iceberg containing the amount of data that TfL produces and handles. Every time an Oyster card is swiped on a bus or at a Tube station, TfL accrues data.

"We generate more data than many, and we need it because we are managing people's journeys," Pavitt says, adding that the organization is getting better at using that information. There is a debate about how the data is used, both by TfL and other organisations, especially if it has commercial importance. Pavitt is straight to the point: "I want to make all our information available to the public." He certainly sees how it could be commercially valuable and is improving the data so that, should the organisation choose to offer it to outside organizations, it is in a fit state, but he has "no idea on what will be done".

Pavitt sees traveller information in the same way as he sees information on where a train or bus is on the network: it should be shared with the TfL staff and the TfL customers so that they can make decisions.

Pavitt and his team are currently undergoing an infrastructure refresh and vendors are learning that he is not to be trifled with. Pavitt is quick to point out that the technology he inherited was overall very good. The problem was that the organisation is only eight years old, therefore integration of earlier systems was a major issue and his team is now trying to join up the systems, based around an SAP enterprise resource planning infrastructure.

The number of data centres is being reduced and he is going through the outsourcing agreements with a fine toothcomb, noting that "the majority of these are exceptionally weak". In place will come a new structure where the simple transactional processes operated by IT systems will be outsourced and critical information management will be brought in house. Datacentres will be outsourced, but staffed by an in-house team. Desktop support for command level people is also to be run in house, including station managers - people who the network depends on. Pavitt discovered that TfL had 11 enterprise deals with one vendor, all at different prices. One deal at one price is now in place. "The suppliers haven't rushed out to hug me, we just told them how it was going to be," he says.

Enough to go round

Despite the moans of Congestion Charge payers, Pavitt says he doesn't have a bottomless pit of money, but adds that: "The budget I am operating to has not been cut and we are running significantly under budget." Also, the savings he has made are paying for parts of the refresh. "We should bear some of our own pain".

There is no deviation from method with Pavitt, it's all about the customer, and IT, no matter the organization, "is just a transaction". Being a CIO is not about being from the business or IT, "a CIO understands transactional management."

Pavitt believes his team understand that and will deliver their bold vision, and he has a successful story on which to base that belief: "Oyster is more advanced than most companies can ever achieve."