Public Services > Local Government

Shared ambitions, shared benefits

Mark Samuels Published 13 September 2012

What are the emerging best practices for shared services success? Mark Samuels learns from a London tri-borough partnership and Norfolk county council

Shared services can help local authorities cut costs and improve service provision, but only if the required level of preparatory work has been undertaken. From quick, demonstrable benefits to a co-operative approach to implementation, what are some of the best practice procedures for local authorities looking to share technology services?

Jackie Hudson, the assistant director of procurement and ICT strategy at the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, says that rather than approaching shared services as a big bang transformation, impressive results can come from smaller changes to working practices.

Shared calendars and global email address books, for example, ensure individuals are connected and can be located. "That's an important moment, because you can create big time savings," says Hudson, who is also lead technology adviser for the tri-borough shared service approach between her council, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster city council.

Hudson says moves to bring people together through technology must be underpinned by information sharing agreements and a tight security framework, especially in areas such as social care where personal citizen data is being accessed. Staff training about confidentiality, and the establishment of personal commitment statements, will help ensure best practice staff behaviour is established.

"We have great leadership and senior buy-in that allows us to achieve change," says Hudson. "The three CIOs of the boroughs have put their minds to the task and got on with the job." While most of Westminster's IT is managed externally by Serco, Hammersmith and Fulham has established a partnership approach with Agilysis, and Kensington and Chelsea's technology is almost completely insourced.

Political differences not necessarily a barrier

Hudson says political and contractual differences do not have to be a barrier to change. "We've really emphasised sovereignty," she says. "Each CIO has the ability to implement their own policies in their own way. Differences do not mean you can't use the underlying shared systems to make your policies work."

Further moves towards integration have been fostered through the tri-borough implementation of SharePoint, Microsoft's web platform for collaboration and document sharing. Individual councils still maintain their intranet platforms. Hudson says the long-term aim is for all organisations to use the recently launched tri-borough intranet, TriBnet.

In terms of support, the organisations maintain their own service desks, but a strategy has been created for workers who want to hot desk across the three boroughs. Any IT issues for employees who work remotely are escalated with the worker's home borough and answered by the host council in response to agreed service levels.

"Such arrangements are not easy to work out," says Hudson. "You have to concentrate on getting people to realise that each organisation is a service provider. Everyone in IT has pulled together to make the shared support service work. There's a mature attitude and the IT teams are helping people to work."

Partnerships based on shared ambitions

There are other examples of a mature approach to shared services that can be found around the country. Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire's close geographical proximity means both organisations have already benefited from job swaps and combined back office systems.

The development of NHS Shared Business Services provides an example of how trusts can work together to combine back office processing, generating some clear lessons, notably first of all, that CIOs must be able to demonstrate real benefits - including better service, not just cost savings - within the first 100 days. And secondly, that CIOs must work to tight deadlines and avoid thinking beyond a single parliamentary term, as executives in charge can leave and priorities can change.

Finally, shared services work best where a 'coalition' is already in place: it can be difficult to progress quickly if you're starting a relationship from scratch.

Kurt Frary, ICT architecture manager at Norfolk county council, says his organisation's IT strategy promotes the aim of working closely with a range of public sector bodies, including local authorities, the fire service and social care organisations. Progress has already been made, including the provision of outsourced IT services to Great Yarmouth district council and Eastern Sea Fisheries.

"Shared services used to be all or nothing - if you couldn't do everything, there wasn't much interest," says Frary. "There's been a change and now we look for organisations to work with in partnerships that create benefits for both parties and our citizens."

Two questions, he says, are often the starting point for discussion about potential sharing: is there IT duplication; and can Norfolk workers use the other organisation's facilities to access systems when they are out in the field? Such discussions are taking place right now in relation to working more closely with Norfolk's fire fervice.

Early work has concentrated on areas of duplication, such as two separate email systems. Frary says sharing is not just about consuming services, but can identify best practice procedures. The fire service, for example, uses Microsoft's collaboration tool, Linc, something yet to be adopted by the council.

"Shared services is about using external expertise where appropriate," says Frary, who adds that Norfolk is also exploring closer relationships with Suffolk county council. He says joint work around the Public Services Network (PSN) is providing a test-bed for further sharing. Once again, he says, partnerships help create new access to knowledge.

He says that both parties need a shared ambition in order to make a practical difference and some of the long-term barriers to sharing, such as technical barriers and security concerns, have been addressed by accredited approaches to integration, including the PSN.

"Our strategy is to be as wide as possible, but we don't want to do too much too quickly. You don't have to do everything at once. You just need to think carefully about stages of development and how you can break down potential barriers, such as technology and cost," says Frary.

"You also need to consider how your organisations will share people, systems and contracts. Both organisations must have a shared ambition and direction of travel."



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