18 March 2016

Strength in numbers

As devolution roll-outs increase across the UK, more and more local authorities are looking to co-operative working and strength in collective solutions to transform service delivery, simplify their purchasing processes and maximise their budgets.

UNICORN (Unified Communities over Regional Networks) is BT’s solution – formed with Surrey County Council, and the Boroughs and Districts across Surrey and Berkshire in 2012, the UNICORN systems aggregator approach supported by BT is proving very successful.

“The intent was to create a partnership of public sector organisations across Surrey and Berkshire to aggregate demand and purchase networking services collaboratively,” explains Paul Brocklehurst, Chief Information Officer of Surrey County Council. “UNICORN lays the foundations for ever-closer public service integration and achieves scale benefits that each participant couldn’t achieve alone.”

For all CIO’s dealing with a telecoms procurement can be a daunting and time consuming process with no guarantee that the resulting product could not be bettered elsewhere. UNICORN is a systems aggregator run by BT and Surrey County Council that enables local authorities to band together and manage the tender process for certain IT services, from managed LAN and WAN to Mobile and hosted IP telephony platforms, as the UNICORN contract team, which includes Surrey County Council personnel, does that on their behalf.

The UNICORN team work together with the UNICORN partners to define the solution and tests the market to find the best value solution for partners, which results in better pricing than smaller organisations would receive from suppliers on their own. In addition, the team also runs procurements on a partner’s behalf and offer a single point of contact and single management layer.

BT’s Martin Kemp, client partner for BT Global Services, believes that systems aggregators like UNICORN will become increasingly prevalent as devolution becomes a greater part of the UK’s infrastructure.

“Shared services are undoubtedly the way forward in terms of procurement routes,” he says. “UNICORN lays the foundations for much closer public service integration and achieves scale benefits which each authority could not achieve alone.”

The system works through an aggregator model. Organisations become UNICORN partners, and pick from a catalogue of services, which evolves according to partners’ needs. The team manages supplier relationships (suppliers include Cisco, Virgin, EE, TTB and Unify) to ensure that partners are benefiting from the best pricing on the market. Pricing is fully transparent, with partners being able to see the contracted margins, and there are no hidden costs.

“These contracts have real credibility,” says Kemp. “Our partners know exactly what they are paying and they trust the UNICORN team. “ Partners can also benefit from a dedicated service desk, which triages fault calls and performs remote diagnostics, a service manager, business manager, client partner and project manager, with cross-supplier experience - all of whom work for the UNICORN clients.

As an example, Brocklehurst cites local Surrey schools, whose broadband network is now much more powerful and cost effective than it would have been if purchased individually.

“Being part of UNICORN means we can benefit from very competitive rates because it has to market test its rates every time we buy anything,” he says. Also, with educational establishments working ever-closer with social services, the NHS and the police, UNICORN provides the platform to enable the necessary secure interaction.

Stuart Mitchenall, Head of Business Support Services at Tandridge District Council, agrees. “We expect to see greater exploitation of service based solutions in all connected authorities,” he says.

The scheme is currently being used by health organisations in Surrey as well as district and borough councils and schools. “UNICORN is a realistic alternative for local health authorities because they know they will get the best price, and they simply do not have the time or resources to engage in the forensic detail they need to feel sure that they are receiving connectivity cost-effectively,” says Kemp.

For Brocklehurst, it’s not just about the pricing. “We actually get a lot of say in how it works and exactly what products we want to buy next. UNICORN actually designs a solution along with the customers. As an example, we had certain specific security requirements around Wi-Fi, and we designed the solution with BT, ran the procurement together and the market responded, so we’re now working with a product that is simply not available elsewhere because it was designed specifically with our needs in mind.”

It’s also had a beneficial effect on communal mindset, says Brocklehurst. “As a group we now pool resources together across the region, update on UNICORN and discuss possible resource sharing or challenges. It makes it easier to work more effectively as a region, as it gives our small district councils the same opportunities as those of our large county councils. We simply work better together.”

UNICORN is laying the foundations for much closer public service integration. Not only will it provide participating authorities with access to a better quality and range of services, economies of scale, business benefits and overall cost savings, it is a positive enabler for collaboration and joint working which will become ever more vital as devolution becomes widespread.

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