The sharing of IT services within local government is not a new concept. However, whilst the idea has been around for over a decade, cuts and a record period of austerity has resulted in more local government shared services initiatives being delivered in the last 12 months than in the previous decade.
For the general public, we are exiting a recession and a period of economic hardship. However, for those working in government, the effects of the recession are still underway and will continue to be a factor for years to come. So, why have we not seen local councils working together in this way before now? And how many more shared services initiatives should we expect to see in the coming years?
So what are the challenges?
Neighbouring councils, whilst geographically close, may well be far apart when it comes to their political alignment. Naturally, this creates an environment of competition rather than co-operation which is actually to the detriment of the public. It’s obviously far less cost-effective to be running two contact centres for example, with two separate IT departments when ultimately; it’s the public’s money they are spending. This means that members of the public are left footing the bill caused by political division in neighbouring councils.
By their own admission, government bodies are fairly averse to the sharing of resources and services. I was at a recent public sector conference where upon being asked who was prepared to share services, the room fell deafly silent. This has more to do with maintaining ownership and control over their services than a simple objection to working together. Many councils fear that by moving toward a model of shared services, they are losing their identity along with their ability to control standards and operational structure.
If you look at this from the customer perspective, the public don’t need to know what council region they are in and don’t really want to navigate through various departments to reach somebody who can serve their needs. Providing a consistency of service throughout a wider region can only benefit members of the public.
Councils need to be very careful when making assumptions about the cost savings of shared IT services. It is imperative that all councils involved are on the same page when it comes to exactly what is being shared and where responsibilities lay. It is also important to understand and make educated predictions on traffic volumes for every channel. Otherwise, outsourcing services based on partial or purely estimated figures may leave departments overwhelmed.
There is also a great deal of sensitivity around efficiencies which result in job cuts. As well as legal constraints and notice periods, decisions have to be made over who loses their job and from which council cuts should be made.
At KANA Software, we’ve had many success stories when it comes to the implementation of shared services. Beyond the significant savings on resources for those involved, there are numerous benefits to both customers and council staff. Smaller councils can partner with ‘big brothers’ to leverage the additional infrastructure and potentially expand their service offering, staff can receive additional support where required and customers can expect the same level of service as their regional neighbours.
When managed correctly, shared services allow councils to retain their identity whilst sharing systems. The silver lining of this challenging climate for local government is this establishment of more flexible, more consistent and ultimately, far more efficient services for the general public.
David Moody is head of worldwide product development at KANA Software