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The typical Local Authorities (LA) ICT department has traditionally been seen as a back office function that gets called upon to resolve issues as and when they arise. They work very much in a silo from the rest of the council operating from an individual budget with pressure to drive their own savings through their own efficiencies outside of the wider council transformation programmes. However, with new technology and cloud computing this model should be turned on its head. A modern ICT service should be seen as the knight in shining armour rather than the department of no.
Let me explain. Through transforming the requirements and service specification of the ICT department, councils should be seeing their ICT department as both the driver and the enabler for change. Modern cloud based (SaaS) systems such as Google Apps, Salesforce, Okta, Box and many others enable councils to transform the way that it delivers services, but also forces a change in the work practice of staff (both ICT and non-ICT) due to the differences in utilising cloud software compared to the traditional legacy on-premise solutions. ICT can effectively become a commissioning service: i.e.buy in solutions which would mean back office tasks, upgrades, patching, maintenance etc are undertaken by the vendor with little or no downtime to the council (client).
For example by moving to Google Mail from Microsoft Outlook, gone are the overheads within ICT of having to manage an Exchange environment, servers are removed from estate, expensive upgrades are removed, staff can have access to their email from any device and don’t need to be on the corporate network and disaster recovery becomes the responsibility of Google not ICT. Admittedly this approach requires Business Continuity plans to be in place, but should Google go down for any reason, you can guarantee there’s a lot of other companies asking for it to be brought back asap and Google will have more resources available to do this than a typical ICT department. But by moving to Google you’re also then changing the way staff work. It may only be subtle in some cases, after all Google Docs and Sheets look like their Microsoft counterparts, but the collaboration and sharing capabilities open up new opportunities for staff to be more efficient in their own working practices, whether it be remote, mobile or through more flexible working (Should 9-5 be killed off in certain roles?). There are then the added benefits such as staff using Hangouts, Keep, Drive, Sites and Forms as part of the package (How many LA’s have actually looked at the number of internal emails that are sent on a daily basis?).
This move also has the added benefit of councils looking at Chromebooks in place of laptops. Not only are they cheaper to purchase, but don’t require building, upgrades, anti-virus software or encryption software. They may not be the right solution for all staff but the vast majority will be able to work more than adequately from one. They also reduce the workload of your internal Desktop team.
Going a step further we need to consider the LA application estate. In most cases hundreds of different applications all hosted on on-premise servers requiring staff to manage and maintain them, power, air conditioning, floor space etc.
But in reality, the true issue with the applications is two-fold. Firstly in the vast majority of cases they are silo’ed applications holding data specific to the service that uses the system with little or no integration to other applications.
Silo’ed data should be seen as one of the biggest barriers to transformation within a LA. Without being able to see across the whole council, how can you possibly plan and prepare for future service demands?
The data that these applications hold is also an issue, especially when each application probably utilises a different reporting tool, requiring LA’s to employ staff who are able to get information from a single system rather than a more generic team of data specialists who can pull data from any system utilising a single Business Intelligence tool, meaning that it is simpler to view and analyse data across more than a single service.
By moving applications to a single platform such as Salesforce with common data standards, not only do you reap the benefits of moving to a cloud based system with similar benefits to those mentioned above with Google but you can also pull disparate and silo’ed systems together turning your performance team into what should be one of the most important teams in the LA, spending more time analysing the data that is coming out of the platform rather than churning out spreadsheets of data with little analysis of what the data is telling you. With the more modern cloud solutions more and more of this data is real time allowing staff to respond quicker to changes rather than looking at historic data and then trying to react.
The second issue is the application itself. The vast majority of applications that I have come across do not adequately function for the service using it. By this I mean that it’s only when you spend time with service users that you start to find the spreadsheets, the access databases and the workarounds that staff have employed to overcome some of the shortcomings of the applications. By again moving to a system such as Salesforce (Force.com) for your application requirements you can configure the system to work in the way that your users want it to work not how the supplier says it works. This is often a difficult concept for staff to get used to as they are often excluded from procurement and implementation programmes and does require a change to the way applications are purchased and rolled out, but ultimately with the right leadership and buy-in from staff moving to these type of applications will be hugely beneficial in their day to day roles.
You also have the added benefit of the more modern applications being designed to work across a wide range of device types, needing only a browser to access them. In moving to applications built for, by and with the workforce you can put an end to the workarounds, the databases and spreadsheets meaning staff can focus on just using the core system. Of more benefit though is that the data that was previously held outside of the core system is now within it and therefore you will have much richer content that your performance team can analyse.
But what about Security – this is the Cloud after all?
Cloud security is the most common reason I come across for not moving to cloud services. Often cited by ICT Security Officers as unable to provide adequate protection to council data. Without going into lots of detail on this, the simple answer is that most of the cloud companies spend huge sums of money on security and have some of the biggest companies in the world using their software. They can not afford data breaches and therefore invest heavily in this, much more so than a LA could afford. The question shouldn’t be about where the data is held, it’s about how you access the data. Ensuring you have the necessary systems in place to control access and having the right policies and procedures in place are key to ensuring cloud security. These procedures and policies should be constantly revisited, not signed off once and then consigned to a filing cabinet (cloud based one!). Do your homework, spend time looking at your data, put the necessary processes in place, ensure staff are trained and up to date on DPA etc and there is no reason why any LA can’t utilise public cloud services.
So what about those budgets?
There are a number of factors to consider when looking at your ICT budgets. Firstly, the ICT budget needs to be seen as an enabler to change and not seen as an isolated budget. The ICT budget in most LA’s will be comparatively small when compared to budgets in other services. Therefore if you are investing more in ICT to make non-ICT staff more efficient, then you should expect the ICT budget to increase.
However, when combined with transformation savings through those efficiencies, the net cost to the council should be beneficial overall. For example, let’s say your Social Care budget is £60m a year and your ICT budget is £6m a year. If the ICT budget increases by 10% but you’re social care budget reduces by 10% then as an authority you are still £5.4m better off. If the ICT budget is viewed in isolation however, this investment won’t happen, thereby missing out on the larger savings opportunities.
However, moving to cloud doesn’t necessarily mean an increase to the overall cost of the ICT service. I’ve already mentioned some of the benefits of moving to Google and Salesforce above, but if you factor in the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of applications, then what looks like an increased annual licence fee is actually reducing the TCO as you’ll be removing servers, reducing power consumption, reducing network cost and maintenance, upgrades, patching, SQL or Oracle Database licensing, downtime etc. It also should mean you can start reducing or redeploying the ICT team itself. By commissioning cloud services the number of maintenance roles required in ICT is reduced and for those remaining their role is changed from a back office rarely seen function to a forward facing dynamic member of staff configuring and enhancing cloud systems alongside departments with a small team of procurement and contract management roles.. This is where ICT can become the knights in shining armour, by focusing on improving service delivery and not maintaining systems ICT (alongside the Performance Team) will be seen as a core LA service.
This change obviously relies on a critical mass of applications moving to the cloud and relies on LA’s gripping the ‘bull by the horns’ and fully utilising cloud apps across the estate. So in reality, although the cost may look higher in some instances against the overall council model, in the end embracing cloud will reduce costs. It’s not a question of cost of ‘on-prem vs cloud’ to save on an ICT budget, it’s a question of how can you utilise cloud apps and services (such as Amazon Web Services) to deliver transformation, change and savings across the authority.
So in conclusion where does ICT stop and Digital begin?
This isn’t always a straightforward question to answer. In some LA’s they will be seen as two distinct roles, in others ICT will be expected to lead on digital as well. In reality it’s a hybrid of the two. Digital is more than just a nice website and a few e-forms, it’s a complete business redesign that requires a different skill set than just those of ICT alone. It requires Business Analysts, Change and Transformation Managers as well as some ICT technical knowledge, especially in unpicking a legacy estate!
If digital is only seen as the website and e-forms approach then really it’s just a sticking plaster over some poor work practices and incumbent applications (often related to each other). Digital should be seen as an opportunity to redesign the entire workflow from how a resident accesses the council right through to the back office systems.
It takes vision and leadership from those at the top of the chain, to understand how these new tools can modernise their workforce and change processes right through to end users who have the day to day service knowledge. Thinking digital should be embedded right across councils and not seen as the remit of just a single team. All processes have the opportunity to be improved through technology, even those that have already been improved. Technology is improving at an unparalleled speed and LA’s need to make full use of the capabilities of modern technology, as overall budget reductions continue to bite.