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Shared services: the key to transformational government
The public sector has come under increasing pressure to drive efficiencies through the intelligent application of modern technologies via a series of government-led initiatives; one such initiative is the Transformational Government plan, an element of the efficiency drive that can be said to underpin all the others.
This plan considers the best ways technology can be used to further involve the UK’s citizens in government and how to better tailor services to meet individual needs. Key to this is the aim to share more services across local authorities (LAs).
According to the ideas of Transformational Government, shared services provide public service organisations with the opportunity to reduce waste and inefficiency by re-using assets and technologies and sharing investments with others. This is at the heart of the e-efficiency agenda: the use of technology to streamline the processes of local government while improving services.
However, LAs are still a long way from realising the dream of the shared services utopia envisioned by central government. So why is this the case, when the benefits of shared services seem largely self evident to the politicians at Westminster?
Barriers to the take-up of shared services
E-efficiency has been implemented unevenly by LAs due to the regional nature of funding. The way that public sector projects are funded leads to almost automatically, a siloed approach to technology. LAs usually provide the majority of their funds in upfront fees, with lower ongoing costs. This can engender something of a ‘DIY’ approach and makes managed solutions less desirable as the necessary ongoing funds are not available.
Public sector networks are, therefore, largely segmented and different applications are managed separately. They lack the convergence of technologies, processes and standards necessary to make shared services a reality. In addition, competition between LAs is intense, arguably more so than that between rival companies in the private sector. This leads to duplication of effort as LAs build the same services – exactly the opposite effect from the government’s aims. Where shared services have been allowed to grow they have more than proved their worth. The Pathfinder projects are one such rare instance of councils working together to deliver an integrated IT project.
The Pathfinder projects involve a network deployment that will provide high capacity broadband links to schools, libraries and council offices throughout the Highlands and Islands for Pathfinder North, and Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders for Pathfinder South. The projects resulted in five WANs being able to interoperate with each other effectively in the case of Pathfinder North, while the Pathfinder South project connected two WANs. The working relationship that this has established with the relevant councils has developed a culture in which it is likely full shared services will develop.
The network deployments in Scotland point the way in which similar projects could successfully function. It is an ideal that will be much easier to achieve in the future when the UK has more next-generation networks deployed and interoperating with each other. The public sector will, however, need to overcome its traditional resistance to managed solutions for this is to become more widely realised.
Managed Solutions and the public sector
Private sector deployments of managed services, such as those provided by THUS to GCap Media, have clearly demonstrated their value. They allow access to the most up to date networks while taking away the pain of having to bring in-house staff up to speed on ever more complex technology.
Glasgow City Council has demonstrated how this can work in practice in the public sector. The network rolled out for GCC was planned around helping the LA meet the targets of the Gershon report. Due to this it was an unqualified success. Typically, operators characterise managed services in terms of Service Level Agreements that define the boundaries of service parameters, including aspects such as fault monitoring, which will be managed proactively.
This approach can be taken further by recognising the true long-term interdependency between both parties, by physically basing its personnel full-time on the customer’s own premises. This way, relationships can deepen to ensure that a customer’s issues are really understood and solutions developed to meet them. For LAs, it also takes some of the fear of managed services away by giving them the peace of mind that their own in-house expertise will not be lost.
Transforming local government
It is apparent therefore, that if the Government is to reach its aim of Transformational Government, there needs to be a change in the way in which LAs approach shared services.
There needs to be a deal of coordination around which LAs will lead on which service, and for this to happen LAs will need to engage in joint planning.
Shared services and managed solutions have a lot to offer the public sector, and there is some reason to be confident that the next few years will see a greater uptake of such services. The public sector is increasingly deciding to outsource key areas of its ICT infrastructure and this trend will play a great part in encouraging Transformational Government.
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