The Cloud Communications Council Spring Forum on Friday, 27th March 2015 was attended by representatives from councils in Southern England. Delegates discussed the ongoing hot topic of shared services in local government.
Cuts to the Central Government Grant mean that councils need to decide which services to continue providing in the long term, and which to commission from outside. Shared services, and by implication sharing the cost of services, should allow councils to continue offering the same (and ideally better) services at a lower cost. Any benefits come, however, with an increased need to collaborate with other councils, third parties and their systems, which in turn implies a number of organisational and technical challenges.
A number of key findings emerged from the first part of the session:
Finding #1: Many barriers to shared services are practical, not ideological
Delegates noted that although the will to share services was increasingly present and strong, practical difficulties often stood in the way. The charity sector, for example, was singled out as being full of organisations from which councils would wish to commission services. Charities are one of the most obvious groups of organisations with which councils would benefit from collaborating, since many offer services that are designed to complement local government facilities, for example adult social care. In practice, however, charities often prove to lack the necessary security accreditations for councils to share sensitive services with them in confidence.
When shared services are attempted with other councils, delegates noted that competing priorities and interests often complicated matters. In local government disparate data networks and versions of software are used by different councils, which can lead to systems being unable to communicate with other systems, even when these systems come from the same vendor.
Delegates concluded that cloud communications have the potential to form a bridge between different systems and organisations, and as such cloud could prove to be a key enabler in realising shared services.
Finding #2: A strategic focus on outcomes, not inputs, is key
Councils are under enormous and continuing pressure to deliver services at reduced cost and without impacting quality. Consequently, councils need to reappraise both their technology and their approach to technology.
One delegate asserted that councils have to start considering what they need to get out of their systems, rather than focusing on what their current systems can do. Delegates agreed that buying the cheapest system for each point requirement, or upgrading outdated systems in the hope that they will meet new challenges, often represents a false economy. Delegates concurred that councils have to deal with the realities of limited budgets and that they need to make the most of pre-existing resources, making ‘blue sky’ procurement unrealistic.
It was agreed therefore that cloud communications, through their ability to overlay and leverage existing IT infrastructure, could provide improved front-end services very quickly, enabling consolidation of back-end IT systems to take place ‘under cover’ and away from the critical path of service delivery. In a shared service environment this would often imply overlaying multiple legacy systems in order to deliver the initial solution.
Finding #3: Successful change requires communication
Delegates discussed the best methods of achieving the desired result when embarking on a technical project. Several of those present stressed the importance of finding a methodology that meets the needs and challenges of working both as a council and as a group of councils. Limited budgets and divergent expectations mean a need for flexibility in the project and clear communications between the project owner and the project manager.
Councils agreed that an agile methodology was desirable in achieving these aims, in order to avoid the slow delivery and lack of dynamism found in traditional Waterfall and PRINCE practices. Delegates agreed that in principle flexible strategies such as the ‘scrum’ technique were now better suited to their requirements. In this methodology, project developers hold daily meetings to ensure that their aims remain dynamically focused on the project’s needs as these develop, and deliveries are made every two weeks.
Overall, however, delegates asserted that it is necessary for project owners to know exactly who to engage with on the supplier side at every stage of the project, and for clear acceptance criteria to be communicated to, and understood by, suppliers.
Conclusion: A new way of thinking about ICT is needed
Many councils have already taken significant steps towards implementing shared services. Councils reported attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to share services and information with a range of organisations, from other councils to charities. At the moment, however, the reluctance to dispose of legacy systems and the difficulty of working with disparate organisations, each with their own platforms, priorities and budgets, is standing in the way of progress.
Clear Communications and Flexible Methodologies
Delegates made it clear that what is necessary in order to achieve ambitious shared service objectives is greater technical and managerial flexibility, accompanied by improved communication on the part of both project owners and project managers. Councils need to develop solutions that can adapt dynamically in order to keep up with their developing needs, and to build a collaborative culture in which these needs are made clear to all. Councils agreed that in order to make the most of legacy systems and limited budgets, a solution with the powerful integration capabilities needed to connect disparate systems, both between and within organisations, was essential.
However, delegates expressed concerns about how this could be achieved, notwithstanding the attractiveness of the cloud. The question of ‘how to’ was then explored in the second part of the forum.
This section of the discussion will be covered in the next series of findings from the Forum, entitled ‘Shared Services in the Cloud Part 2’.