SOCITM 2010: The place to debate public sector technology

Taking place in the week before the Comprehensive Spending Review, Socitm 2010 came and went in anticipation of the very large cuts to public sector spending that were confirmed on October 20th.

Not surprising then, that President Jos Creese, Head of IT at Hampshire County Council, welcomed delegates by suggesting the conference would provide a ‘survival kit’ for public sector IT professionals, highlighting opportunities for technology to facilitate new models of public services delivered at lower cost.


Plenary and parallel sessions certainly provided much food for thought. Monday’s opening keynote from John Barradell, Chief Executive of Brighton and Hove City Council concerned the need for strong communication between councils and citizens in these difficult times.

Many local people had a poor understanding of what the council did. Many were unaware that services as fundamental libraries were council-provided, and while individual services were rated well by users, overall the council was seen as remote, out of touch and unlistening.

A shift towards whole systems thinking and intelligent commissioning was part of the answer – the dismantling of old departmental structures and a new focus on outcomes rather than processes. This made it possible to look at the contribution that housing makes to educational attainment, or the role of planning policy in tackling anti-social or criminal behaviour.
Underlying this was a need for the IT or information function to become the council’s central nervous system, providing a thorough and evidence-based understanding of needs, and strong, real-time understanding of what works to meet those needs.

Data and intelligence, particularly about customers, was a topic also addressed by Jane Frost, Director of the Individuals Customer Directorate at HM Revenue & Customs. Very often, she told the conference, there is a big gap between what we would like our customers to do, and what they will actually do. Understanding this is key to making service provision more cost-effective.

While tools like process mapping will tell you what customers should do, it won’t tell you what they actually will do, she said. The measurement of what kind of experience customers have when they use a service is vital - can people get it right first time? If they can’t, you will be reprocessing, and that just costs money. This is not about being nice, its about saving significant costs on reprocessing errors – and if people needed evidence, Frost said that her directorate has paid for itself out of such savings every year in the past three years.

IT managers more comfortable with technology than customer insight packed out a workshop on GCSX, PSN, and the G-Cloud run by Dylan Roberts, Chief ICT Officer ICT at Leeds City Council, and lead officer for the PSN and G-Cloud projects on the Local CIO Council.

Adopting these tools is all about cashable savings’ he said. ‘There are other benefits, like partnership with other public bodies, but with the PSN, unless it makes at least 10% cash savings then we’re not interested.”
The PSN takes a different approach to GCSX in that it is a network of networks, and a local public service-driven exercise, with choice at local and regional level about how we want it to be developed, he said. Partners could include local authorities, health service bodies, the emergency services, universities, voluntary sector, and local network providers such as those in the commercial sector.

“Getting all of these partners on board is the biggest challenge and without the health service on board, it will be hard to get to that 10% saving but if we do, it could be up to 30%-40% just on network services.”
G-Cloud is synonymous with the PSN, in that it is based on the network and many services planned for the G-Cloud – like email - are already being developed on the PSN. Eventually, everyone will be invited to move onto the PSN but for the time being, he those authorities connected to GCSX following compliance with the secure ‘Code of Connection’ (CoCo) were advised to maintain their connections, despite the fact that all central funding for GCSX is set to cease from March 2011.

Some delegates questioned the government’s approach to secure connection, with its stringent rules and regulations that made it impossible, for example, to connect mobile devices to the network. Delegates were assured that the government’s approach to security was becoming more flexible, with more pragmatism about threats relevant to each level.

Shared services is another major current preoccupation of local IT managers. Geoff Connell has a new role running ICT services not just at the London Borough of Newham but also at the London Borough of Havering.
In his opening remarks, he referred to the need to cut ICT overheads yet retain sufficient capacity to transform council service provision to make the big savings that are needed. There are three main options to achieve this: to continue down the evolutionary path to efficiency savings; to outsource, and share the savings with a private sector supplier; or to keep all the savings in public sector by sharing services.

For shared services to work there must be trust – in his own case someone at Havering had already worked with him, so when their top IT post came free he was invited to add the role to his existing one at Newham.
Initially the easiest savings were made on procurement, he said – buying Microsoft systems once for the two councils rather than twice, for example, an instant saving of 50%. Over time this has been supplemented by sharing of knowledge from specialist staff and teams at Newham – their expertise has been available to Havering at cheaper rates than they could have been obtained on the market and Newham benefits from maintaining the resource.
More than £1m revenue savings have been made over past 3 years, but there are critical factors in making shared services work well. Above all, both organisations must share an IT strategy and for the vision to be well sold to chief executive, service heads and all staff.

This message was underlined by Graham Catlin and Andy Heys of Cheshire Shared Services, a body providing ICT, human resources and finance services to the new unitaries of Cheshire West and Chester; and Cheshire East Council.

420 staff were inherited by the new shared services body formed in April 2009, and this was reduced to 220 through voluntary redundancies and redeployment. Over the same period, applications were harmonized, service desks were centralised from seven to one, and business processes were standardised.

One of the key lessons learned was the importance of measuring baseline performance before services are shared, or the extent of real savings will never actually be known.

Savings of up to £1m just in the front office would be the ultimate prize in a major exercise to shift customers to the lower cost online channel, said Tim Rainey, Assistant Chief Executive at Tameside MBC.
The private sector had understood for some time that the more activity you can shift onto your customers, the cheaper it is to provide services - so why should councils be any different? At Tameside, their target for the next three years is to channel 70% of all services online, with 20% handled by call centre and 10% face to face.

A carrot and stick approach is advisable, he said. On the one hand, councils should close the paper channel where possible but at the same making the customer experience better when they go online.
Marketing is important. Tameside uses slogans like “don’t queue in line, go online”. Even the council’s logo can be called into action: “the Tameside council main logo has had ‘www’ on it for 10 years now.”
There was no alternative but to innovate, he concluded. “If we don’t do things differently, we’ll end up not doing anything at all as the money runs out, just switching off the lights, and I don’t think that’s an option.”

The importance of getting everyone online and using the internet was underlined by UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox in the conference closing keynote – delivered, appropriately, ‘down the line’ from a video suite in Cardiff.

As a country have to have as near as possible to 100% connection to the internet, Lane Fox said. Nine million are still not online, four million from the most economically disadvantaged groups. However, research carried out for her office last year had shown that the average economic benefit to a person from being online was around £270 a year.

The government also stood to benefit financially, she said, if all the people who have never used the internet made just one interaction with government online, the government would be saving upwards of a billion a year.

Improvement of government services online was an important part of this, and the portal Directgov, providing publishing and transactions, needed to be the absolute gold standard. A review of Directgov Lane Fox had just completed would soon be published. Overall, there was a need to inspire people about the value they could gain from coming online, from saving money on commercial products like insurance to gaining quicker access to public services, she said.


A wealth of material from Socitm 2010 is now available on the Socitm 2010 microsite . This includes presentation slides, conference reports, a series of short video interviews with key speakers, and photographs.

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