Latest Public Sector News

01.06.12

The transforming council

Source: Public Sector Executive May/June 12

PSE caught up with Glyn Evans, president of Socitm for the 2011/12 year and the architect of the transformation programme at Birmingham, at the society’s spring conference where he handed over the chains of office to Kay Brown.

Is IT a back office function, as it is usually labelled? Or is it a service delivery function – as top CIOs think it can and should be?

Glyn Evans, who has just finished his term as president of Socitm, thinks that the transformational power of technology and IT expertise in improving services and cutting costs is overlooked far too often, and that at too many local authorities, IT chiefs are being pushed down the management ladder when they should be rising up it.

Speaking to PSE at the Socitm spring conference in London in April, Evans said shared services can fail when “very senior people” at participating councils get involved and demand bespoke tweaks that suck the value out of the project; that the “cuts, cuts, cuts” agenda is unsustainable; and that there is naivety at play in the emphasis on working with SMEs, which are often rapidly gobbled up by bigger players if they show signs of being successful.

Evans has been with Birmingham City Council since 2003, where he led the business transformation project, which aimed to save £1bn over 10 years through moder.nised IT systems and workflows – and which, despite some hiccups, seems basically on track to do so. Since last summer, he has been on secondment to Warwick Business School.

Influence and impact

Reflecting on his year as president of Socitm, he told PSE: “The year’s been challenging. It’s challenging for everyone who works in public service, including our members, and for every organisation involved in public service in whatever way.

“Ideally we’d like to grow our membership, but at a time of downsizing that’s very difficult.”

He praised the work the society had done to promote its 2011 strategy report on ICTenabled local public services reform, Planting The Flag, at the highest levels.

He said: “It’s very much about saying – and this is my passion – that our role as CIOs is not just about delivering technology; it’s about fundamentally influencing the way local services are delivered.”

Too many councils are saying they want to do more with less, but actually do “less with less” he said. “It’s been a cuts agenda. I don’t think that’s sustainable as a long-term strategy. You can’t keep doing cuts, cuts, cuts, and retain the support of the local population.

“So, now is the time for the CIO community to step up to the plate and take on a leadership role around the transformation of public services.”

But that is difficult when the role of the CIO is being downgraded at some authorities, he said.

He said: “In some areas, there have been budgetary increases – maybe at the 10% of authorities who see IT as the enabler of change! But in other areas, we’ve seen the role of the CIO pushed further down the organisation, because not only have we seen budget cuts – disproportionate cuts, at some authorities – but also very significant management delayering. What that does, in effect, is push the role of the IT manager down the organisation.

“While I fully accept that you don’t have to be sitting at the top table to have a leadership role in an organisation, the further you are away from the top, the harder it gets.

“We still suffer from the issue that IT is seen as a back office function. I would argue IT isn’t a back office function; it’s part of the delivery of services. It has the potential to realise far more than it’s ever achieved so far, and to go on doing it.”

This was a message also pushed by Martin Ferguson, director of policy at Socitm. He said: “Planting the Flag has been a voyage of discovery, creating the conditions for unlocking ICT-enabled innovation and creativity – all in the pursuit of better local public service outcomes, for less.

“It’s about getting a balance between a prescriptive road map – a vision of where we want to get to – and the creative, organic innovation that’s necessary to take account of local services.

“What will success look like? Integrated and personalised health and social care, selfservice, channel shift, mobile and flexible working, economic regeneration, inclusivity, digital access to services…”

Technology – only part of the answer

Evans admitted that only a minority of councils have been willing to let IT help drive transformation – and that some IT professionals have erred, too, in appearing to “tell other areas of the business what to do”, and focusing too much on technology alone.

He said: “If you want to get the most out of this technology, you’re going to have to change your business processes, the roles in your business area, tricky things like reporting lines.

“Technology isn’t the answer to the operation of any area of the public sector: but if it isn’t part of the answer, then that answer is wrong.”

This is part of a wider agenda that Evans has termed ‘the transforming council’ – where the local authority helps drive ICT-enabled public services transformation across its locality, not just internally.

He said: “What sits behind the transforming council concept is the idea that transformation is not a one-off: it’s a continuous cycle of activity, because the technology will continue to develop.”

Share and share alike

Evans had some tough lessons for local authorities who are putting too much faith in shared services to make efficiency savings.

He said: “If you do it simplistically, it can be a disaster. There are some good examples from the US of shared services being implemented that have actually cost more than what they’ve replaced.

“You’ve got to get your business case fully developed, and understand why shared services can save you money, if it’s going to be successful, and in order to do that, you’ve got to be prepared to give up things. You can’t run a shared service which is saving money, then have tweaks for each of the partners in the shared service, it has to be consistent.

“The challenge is, you have people who are implementing shared services being overruled by very senior managers in individual organisations, who say ‘well, actually, I want to do it like this’.

“There are also some downsides to shared services, which we’ve not yet really begun to address. The more partners you have involved, the harder it is to make changes to that shared service. Going back to the concept of transformation being a continuous cycle, how do you build that into the thinking?”

He said 10-year arrangements are no longer sensible, while acknowledging the arrangement he signed himself at Birmingham was 10 years long. But new uncertainty because of the financial climate for local authorities made those long-term tie-ups more problematic.

He said the transformation programme at Birmingham was “a good demonstration that transformation is possible”, saying it’s on track to deliver 95% of the benefits first identified, and that it’s returning £2.20 in savings for every £1 invested.

He gave particular credit to CHAMPS2, the transformational change methodology that’s now in the public domain – a team within BIS are the latest to express an interest, he said – and which is useful, he said, for politicallydriven organisations, and any local authority bigger than a small district council.

He added: “In a sense, much of what we did around the back office in Birmingham was to create a shared service for Birmingham, because historically departments pretty well ploughed their own furrows. Moving to a situation where we have a consistent procureto- pay process, right across the council, was itself quite transformational.

“The challenge, and it’s true of all major cities at the heart of conurbations, is the tension between the cities and its neighbours. I found that too in Manchester, when I worked in Greater Manchester. It’s almost a case that others want the city to show some leadership, but not to be seen to be taking over.”

Small is beautiful?

He warned that public sector IT professionals should not jump on the SME bandwagon unthinkingly, saying: “There is sometimes what I see as a potential naivety around the focus on things like SMEs. What tends to happen is that once an SME is successful, it’s bought out by a big player. I can’t see why that won’t happen in the future.”

He said change programmes with private sector partners should be three to five year contracts – not one-year deals, nor the historic seven to ten-year partnerships.

He added: “There are some lessons from Birmingham around recognising that the risk transfer in dealing with the private sector, particularly with technology, has always been quite minimal – because of the value of what the technology delivers. It’s way above the cost of the technology. So, if you take out a contract for, say, a server farm, the best you’re going to get is that the private sector will be prepared to put at risk the delivery of that server farm. What they’re not going to do is put at risk the consequential loss, if you can’t deliver housing benefits or social care, and so on. Let’s be realistic about where responsibility will continue to lie – and therefore think through what that means when negotiating contracts.”

The funding situation

One of the guest speakers at the Socitm spring conference was Graeme McDonald, director of policy and communications at SOLACE, which represents council chief executives and senior staff.

He had a blunt message on the financial situation at most authorities, saying: “What are chief executives worried about at the moment? Well, I don’t think I’ll be teaching you anything if I told you the main thing they’re worrying about is money.

“Last year, in the last 12 months, local government has saved £3bn in total across the country, a significant saving, and a reduction in spending of around 3%, when inflation is running at around 4%. It’s a significant cut in spending, in real terms.

“That is not consistent across the board. Different services are being treated in different ways; some services are being protected, other services that have got demands on them, social care being the obvious one, where spending continues to increase. Waste management, because of disposal particularly, again another area where costs continue to increase. But some services are taking significant cuts; for example, last year, 30% less was spent on planning services than the year before.”

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