We (councils) are not all different

Each council claims to be different to the next. Whilst this may be true in terms of the leadership of the place they operate in, it is not true in terms of the operation of its services. This post argues for adopting standard, shared policies, processes and technology packages for the delivery of council services. These standard packages could be continuously improved with the whole sector routinely levelling up to the best.

The advent of web based Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud computing has created an opportunity to deliver low cost computing. If councils choose to adopt standardised processes the SaaS market will be stimulated to develop quickly.

Shared processes lead to lower set up costs for large shared services relationships. They also enable a new kind of vertical specialisation and highly flexible micro-commissioning of work packages, with councils able to swap out suppliers who are not performing much more easily than is the case at present.

Web based software needs less local computing resources which leads to lower costs of hardware and significantly reduced electricity consumption. Standard web based software enables government to ‘self serve’ their reporting requirements, saving millions of pounds across the sector. Residents clamour for greater transparency can be satisfied easily with a web enabled view in to the “machine of local government”.

My contention is that the decision to agree to standardise is compelling on cost, quality, transparency and carbon reduction grounds.

A widely recognised perfect storm is brewing in the public sector. Increased demands on public services have been recognised for some years with changes in demography and public expectations leading to the view that 21st century public sector service design would have to be very different to the somewhat evolutionary nature of activity over the last half century. The combination of cost, quality and transparency expected in future are undeliverable using existing thinking.

In the pursuit of efficiency the public sector has invested heavily in ICT systems. These systems have tended to be bespoke to each organisation, despite the fact that there are significant overlaps in services between organisations. Specialist systems have generally just got larger and more complex with the attendant costs of development, maintenance, electricity and staff training.

Change takes time the public sector simply doesn’t have. What is needed now are quickly deployable packages of policy + process design + ICT that lead to assured outcomes (in terms of cost, quality and delivery). This means standardising what we do to a significantly greater extent than we do today.

Virtualisation technology and the emergence of a data economy has meant it is now possible to share and change ICT applications much more cheaply whilst also keeping data secure. The technology now exists so that if public sector bodies were able to share policy and process design it would create a genuinely contestable market for shared web based ICT applications. The Software as a Service market is probably now mature enough to deliver a local government portal containing standard ICT products This would be the equivalent of MS Outlook for social care, trading standards, revs and bens, etc).

Most shared service arrangements focus on support services, or those perceived to be low risk. Few councils appear to be prepared to share their front line services such as social care as they perceive the potential risk of reputational loss as being too great. The irony of this is that the amount of spend on support services is relatively modest in comparison to more risky services, so the real benefits of sharing are less. Organizations therefore spend a great deal of time and energy making modest savings – is the effort worth the return?

The problem with current shared services approaches is that a great deal of time and cost is expended exploring, specifying, and mobilising before harmonisation of processes takes place. It is only when harmonisation is achieved that benefits realisation will begin, usually some years after the process first started. The challenge is to re-order this sequence so that harmonisation comes first, leading to much earlier benefits delivery.

Using shared process on the way in to a shared service relationship, and undertaking to track the current best process as it improves, offers a very clear path to develop any partnership. This pre-definition of specification and common process language should reduce the time taken to negotiate outsourced contracts and lead to clearer expectations from all parties.

If many councils are using the same processes it is a short step to using exactly the same computer systems. At present the sector spends a great deal of money on slightly different configurations of the same application. ICT providers complain that each client believes they are different and require unique configurations of software.

Whilst providers know clients are not that different there is no commercial incentive for them to do less work for each one and deliver a very standard offer. The more software that is required to be hosted locally the more hardware is required and the greater the ongoing cost of maintenance.

This vicious circle can be reversed. The more shared web based software that is used the less computing power is required on desktops and in local server rooms. Taken to its logical conclusion we have small, cheap (to both buy and run) computers on desktops that are refreshed much less often and no servers on site. Costs like disaster recovery and server room cooling disappear. In a post Carbon Reduction Commitment world these savings are vital. Reductions in software support costs brought on by a ‘pay as you go’ charging model for web based software slash ICT costs further.

If we are all using the same processes and the same computer systems we can start a market for work packets across the sector. A market for micro work packages would spring up, with tiny slices of capacity being bought and sold as ‘products’. Councils could either enter this market as a provider of services, deliberately over staffing to take on work/earn income, or could staff at the lowest possible level, soaking up peaks in demand using the marketplace.

Taken to its logical conclusion councils that had aspirations to outsource work could ‘try out’ a provider to ensure that they had provided good service to others and could change provider instantly if things were not working well. Arguably this would spell the end of the long term horizontally integrated outsourced contract.

The opportunities for SMEs, or indeed partial Management Buy Outs (MBO), is obvious with small businesses being set up to offer to run specific processes, a much less risky and more flexible proposition for councils than a complete outsourced service(s). Confident supply chain management would be required to really get the benefits of the agility and flexibility this approach would provide.

Transparency both to local people and central government has become increasingly important. Many local government systems have been created to report to central government. Large numbers of people are employed to feed information into systems. Current polices and technology mean this reporting relationship costs millions of pounds per council to service.

Web based technologies make it relatively easy to be transparent at little cost. Local people and government would be able to easily ‘see into the machine’. This is turn leads to a greater sense of value for money for the public.

In conclusion, airlines all use the same aircraft, airports, maintenance facilities, etc and differentiate themselves on soft factors such as customer service and routing schedules. Why does local government insist on differentiating itself by using different ‘aircraft’, whilst neglecting the soft factors?

Now is the time to challenge very hard whether we are concentrating our efforts in the right place to differentiate ourselves in the eyes of residents. People care about the place not the uniqueness of the software, or process we use to deliver our services.

Shared service efforts, and its close cousin outsourcing, often founder because of a lack of trust somewhere in the myriad of relationships that need to exist to make them work. This proposition seeks to create a non-threatening, opt in, set of relationships so that all councils regardless of size can build trust quickly and realise cashable benefits much earlier. Transparency to residents and government combined with lower carbon emissions merely add to the compelling nature of this approach.

However none of this goes anywhere unless local government speaks with a single voice. Our old habits of demanding local variants of software and process design are costing us significant money and the sector cannot continue to allow this to happen. We need to send a clear signal to the software industry that we, as customers, want something different, something standardised, something that will continuously improve at a low cost. We need to design policies and processes that are standard across the sector and improve over time. This will in turn create the opportunity for us to refocus on delivering low cost, low carbon public services to our residents.


About iansthoughts

Chief Operating Officer at DEFRA, and former council Chief Executive. All views expressed are my own and not formal policy of my employers current or past.
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