Peter Dunn 04 July 2017

How councils can avoid corporate memory loss

The dust is settling on the Government Transformation Strategy (GTS) and it has been met with varying degrees of positivity.

Pretty much every commentator has commended the intentions. The cabinet minister Ben Gummer has been widely reported claiming this will be 'the most ambitious programme of change of any government anywhere in the world'.

All 70 pages are filled with a vision and objectives covering every aspect of central government interaction with the public. There are some references to working with local government – a positive acknowledgement that the vast majority of public services have to be delivered by local authorities.

There is also a recognition that the hard work is only about to begin. Streamlining the vast web of public sector IT systems, breaking down silos between organisations and getting applications to talk to one another is a huge task. And that is just between central government departments, never mind the interaction with local service providers.

If such a hugely ambitious programme is to succeed we must be clear on what we are trying to achieve.

Better Information for Better Government, published by the Cabinet Office, suggests: 'The business of government is fundamentally information-based and the value of the civil service comes largely from the accumulated value of the information that it holds.'

It goes on to explain that this is important, because 'effective information management is also fundamental to the preservation and utility of corporate memory. Corporate memory (the accumulated knowledge of a department) ensures that civil servants learn effectively, preventing the repetition of failed policies and superfluous activity.'

So, how do we maintain and improve the corporate memory of the UK public sector?

At the heart of many of the issues highlighted in the GTS is the failure to share information correctly, learn from past mistakes and create best practices. The Better Information for Better Government report explicitly calls out civil servants seeking to reinvent the wheel every time they are tasked with delivering a new solution. It estimates that 'wasted effort re-creating old work might cost government nearly £500m a year.'

However, making information searchable and retrievable is no small task. Some central government departments have more than 100 terabytes of information in their systems and the GTS estimates that central government is currently publishing over 300,000 items of content and growing at 2,500 new web pages per month.

From a local government perspective the task is further complicated – not only must information be integrated from different providers at the local level, it must be integrated with central government services as appropriate. There are 375 local authorities across England and Wales, and some large metropolitan boroughs are operating between 600 and 700 lines of business that they are legally required to deliver to all local citizens.

Overcoming the disconnect between local and central government is hugely symbolic of the corporate memory challenge.

The GTS outlines how it intends to work with local authorities and this is to be welcomed, but local government must act now and independently, because it faces major budget issues. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has suggested councils in England are facing the largest increase in council tax in 10 years in order to meet their social care requirements. The solution offered by the GTS seems to focus on legacy IT systems and how IT is sourced moving forward.

Logically, if central government can move away from long-term, costly contracts it should free up resources. Likewise for local authorities.

Theo Blackwell, cabinet member for finance, technology and growth at Camden Borough Council estimates that local government spends £3bn annually on IT, and £1bnis spent on sourcing and supporting software applications. Clearly if this bill could be reduced it would have a significant impact.

There have already been recommendations made in the GTS policy document, as well as the guidance that already exists in the Technology Code of Practice and the Digital Service Standard.

Having read these documents, I would like to offer my summary of what is needed to best address the corporate memory challenge:

Corporate memory is a collective responsibility: by far the biggest issue facing government is getting disparate departments and bodies to work with local authorities to ensure we have an integrated, collaborative public service IT infrastructure. Government has acknowledged it needs to work hard at engendering a more collaborative culture, but everyone has to commit to this vision if it is to be successful.

Sharing is key: every area of the public sector faces unique challenges, but there are a great many areas of overlap. The GTS talks a lot about re-usable solutions and shared learnings. This is critical, particularly for local government, who do not have the resources to allocate and need to be able to use off-the-shelf solutions wherever possible.

Don’t just think cloud first: the GTS says it will endeavour to go “cloud first” whenever possible. There are understandable benefits in moving to the Cloud, but migration does not come cheap. Legacy systems across the public sector have accumulated a large amount of customised code. Migration could easily be like opening Pandora’s Box.

Don’t blame it on legacy systems: the GTS spends some time pointing the finger at legacy systems as a major source of problems. Certainly, it is sensible to consider a measured strategy to update and evolve IT systems, but our research shows us the bigger problem is not the legacy systems, but the customised code they contain. Legacy systems become an issue when vendors refuse to support older versions and customised code. It is possible however, to secure full support for existing applications and customised code with independent support, and at the same time benefit from a significant reduction in the cost of maintaining the existing infrastructure.

If we agree that corporate memory is the integral challenge facing the UK public sector in the digital era, we need a focused and systematic approach – we need to consider an 'innovation agility' strategy. With an innovation agility strategy, organisations are able to liberate their resources - people, budgets and time – to respond dynamically to the needs of their organisation by investing in IT strategies such as Cloud, mobile and Big Data, that offer significant value.

But the clock is ticking. In May 2018, the new GDPR regulations will place demands on everyone to ensure they have a strategy for managing, retaining and deleting sensitive data. If organisations cannot retrieve information, because they do not know where it is stored – or worse still do not even realise they are storing such data – they could face hefty penalties.

And a resource stretched local government cannot afford such memory lapses.

Peter Dunn, director, UK public sector, Rimini Street

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