Latest Public Sector News

01.04.13

A smooth transaction

Account NI, the shared services centre providing finance and transaction processing services for Northern Ireland’s 12 Government departments and their agencies, has upgraded its business software and ‘revolutionised’ its way of working. PSE spoke to its director, John Crosby and Elizabeth Scott, head of the accounts receivable side of the organisation, and Phil Mulhall, the Oracle architect at BT who helped implement the new system.

Account NI serves 18,500 civil service staff across Northern Ireland’s 12 government departments, processing over 25,000 customer invoices annually.

Its processes used to be heavily paper-based and manual, relying on emailed Excel-based forms being printed off and re-keyed into the centre’s own e-business suite.

But over the last two years, it has been upgrading its software to Oracle Business Process Management Suite 11g and has completely changed the way its systems work, and is now able to create invoices in minutes rather than days.

Smoothing out the peaks and troughs

Elizabeth Scott, head of the accounts receivable side of the organisation, who helped lead the implementation, explained the old situation: “There was duplication of work, with a lot having to be done manually.

“There are times with a lot of peaks and troughs, with high volumes of work coming in at once, which led to backlogs. We could be three, four or even fi ve days behind and we were having problems with email. It became, at times, unmanageable, just because of the high volumes we were getting.

“There was so much paper: for one transaction, you could have three sheets of paper, and there was a lot we were having to keep for audit purposes. It was so simple to lose a page, or not print it off, then it was delayed even more. It was at that point we decided to look at another way of doing this, without all the duplication.”

The sheer amount of activity to process is huge: transactions totalling £10.9bn were managed by Account NI during 2011-2012, including over 575,000 payments worth £2.7bn.

No more ‘dark hole’

Account NI director John Crosby said many of the departments it serves have business requirements that often peak together in time. He said: “You could have 1,000 invoices to issue in one day in one department and maybe 500 for another department, but then you might not get any for another three days. The diffi culty, for us, was managing the peaks and troughs; there really was no way to smooth this out with a largely manual process.”

The old system “was very clunky, very difficult to control and very diffi cult to speed up”. He said: “It’s a bit like queuing in the post office: you always end up behind the slowest person. If someone wanted a quick invoice issued, if there happened to be a bundle of 500 arrive before them, it could be three or four days.

“But now, everybody has an equal bite of the cherry, and users have direct access to the system. Their input can be uploaded virtually automatically, subject to any checking procedures.

“It also eliminates the risk of keying error and the time delay of getting from stage A to stage B, and eliminates any queuing because of peaks and troughs in the work. It’s a very different user experience.

“They now know where their transaction is, and can trace and track it. Before, people talked about sending a form into the ‘dark hole’: it came into us here, to someone’s forms inbox, it was distributed amongst the team.

“Tracing it meant literally going to each stage and asking ‘has it got to this stage yet’ – it was a very manual process. This gives users visibility and clarity over what they’re doing and a far faster turnaround with a more accurate service.”

Phil Mulhall, the Oracle architect at BT, which handled the implementation, said: “When we were redesigning the end-to-end business process, we were able to pick out the key parts of the business process that added value to the organisation: we applied the Lean service mentality. When we look at the process now, we see only steps that add value – not necessarily from a financial point of view, but in terms of efficiency. Each step has a purpose.”

He admitted there had been some “teething problems” along the way, as in any major IT project. “We found the best way was to take a pragmatic, simple approach: we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel in terms of business processes.”

He said he could sit down with the Account NI team and, on a projector, literally drag out each step – “what you see is what you execute”, he said. “I could sit with my customer in a workshop, design a process there and then, and that was exactly what would execute as part of a business process. That was really powerful.”

Any problems, he said, weren’t in what’s known as the ‘happy path’ – the default scenario in which every step goes correctly – which was “quite straightforward”. They were dealing with exceptions and rejections. “That’s where some of the time went,” he said.

Efficiency savings

Dealing with some of those and other challenges has meant that now there is “a structure that’s re-usable across projects – another big efficiency saving for us”.

The three main business processes – creating customers, the sales invoice process, then receipts – were upgraded stage-by-stage, from March 2011 onwards. The new way of handling the final receipts stage of the process is still in a period of stabilisation, and as part of the project, Oracle SOA Suite 11g was implemented alongside the BPM Suite.

Mulhall said: “For a site like this, because it serves so many disparate types of people, scattered throughout Northern Ireland, it has to be straightforward and something they’re used to seeing.”

The benefits of shared services

Account NI was originally set up to handle the financials of the first six departments, which then expanded to 11 and more recently to 12 with further devolution and the creation of the Department of Justice in 2010.

Director John Crosby said the systems used in the mid-2000s were mostly cash-based and “not really meeting the needs of financial management in this day and age”. But looking at shared services then – particularly across a number of autonomous departments – was still a bit new for the public sector, even though it was becoming common in the private sector.

Crosby said: “This was about making best use of one platform for all our customers, having the same system, having the flexibility to grow or contract as necessary, having the flexibility to promote and embed good practice on a common basis across the piece, and to create centres of expertise as well.

“Each of the 12 departments operate on their own, under their own autonomous relationship with their minister, but we provide a common service to all of them.”

We asked whether he would like to expand its customer base elsewhere in Northern Ireland’s public sector.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “For somewhere the size of Northern Ireland, you could probably argue that there oughtn’t to be too many shared services in the public sector. We know that the health service in Northern Ireland – which would be approximately three times the size of the core government departments – is in the process of embarking on shared services, but it’s very much an open question. There’s local government too, and the education sector.

“We certainly recognise that the fewer shared services there are, where you can get commonality of requirement, the better. I’m keen to improve our offering: shared services work best where you can reduce the level of fragmentation and eliminate systems and processes that are not common.”

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