Shared Services. A working model?

Local Government is trying to save money as it has never done before. That of course begs the question  – if the services remain viable after all this cutting why was it not done before? I digress.

Some council’s are joining arms; huddling together. They’re forming small circles to defend against the icy blasts of the Cut, Cut, Cutting gales raging through local government land. Within the opportunities that concept presents in sharing services they are trying to discover savings. Savings usually means losing duplication. And to me that means people.

I spoke recently with the manager of one such service on the east coast of England.

East Lindsey and South Holland District Council’s in Lincolnshire have formed a company, Compass Point Business Services Ltd to share back office services. Chaired by one of the Councillors, Cllr P. PRZYSZLAK, this hybrid commercial/local government venture is seeking to offer similar service provision to that provided by Mouchel Business Services, who provide similar services to Lincolnshire County Council. One assumes, because of its symbiotic relationship with local government, Compass Point  Business Services Ltd won’t have quite the same issues with capital and looking for work. Both will be assured I would guess. Not quite a level playing field in terms of supplier equality.

In a conversation with Martin Payne of Compass Point in late January I asked if there was any intention to merge the web sites of both organisation, or at least to merge the provision. It’s early days yet and it looks like the web is a side issue to be dealt with after the back office merging of Revs & Bens has taken place.

Could you tell me a little about Compass point and how it will work with the web provision of both Councils?

Payne “Before Compass Point was formed East Lindsey moved our web site, back in August 2009 I think, from local hosting to being hosted at South Holland. There’s no major work planned at the moment. We’re using an old version of MS CMS and we would be looking to change this at some point in the future.”

How is the shared service working via a private limited company?

Payne. “ We are not a private limited company. We are owned jointly by East Lindsey and South Holland DC’s. It does get confusing when we talk to suppliers about licensing. We are allowed to look for business from other public service entities like other local authorities etc. but we’re very busy trying to merge the 5 services we have done so far.”

Are you looking outside of the County to sell your services?

Payne. “Definitely. Yes.”

Are you not fettered by Political issues?

Payne. “ this has all come about by attempts to save money. The intention is to save £30m but compass point have the ambition to attract business from other parts of the Country. Initially the intention was to include Boston but that didn’t come about. Perhaps that will change in the next 12 months. Our business model is to provide say Revs and Bens to the other districts, Lincoln for example. The ambition is to grow in that market place.”

How does this fit in with the Lincolnshire wide desire to share IT?

Payne. “ I don’t know if we will be seen as the outsiders. I’m not sure what is going to happen. I’m sure Politics will become involved in those decisions”

How many staff went into Compass point?

Payne. “300 staff went into the business and we are now re-structuring down to a figure of nearer 200 long term.”

Early days indeed and Payne went on to say they were frantic at present sorting everything out.

It will be hard to forecast the outcome for this crossbreed. Will it be a cross between a tiger and a lion or simply a mule. Time will tell but in the interim it will be worth watching. From what I am hearing there is some disquiet in the staff who are going, but that’s not just restricted to this type of partnership I guess. Local Government is in a mess all around.

In the meanwhile Lincolnshire County Council are continuing their long term web partnership with West Lindsey and North Kesteven District Councils. That partnership has been in existence for 5 years or more. The partners share the County CMS, some templates and staff work closely together between County and Districts. The partnership has been quietly delivering savings year on year. And in Lincolnshire became an early demonstration of what shared services could look like.

Jean-Luc, the Borg and LG web sites.

Martha Lane Fox

Some years back DirectGov here was the butt, rightly or wrongly, of many a jibe by local government web officers. Things have changed. They have collected up their skirts and are now running at a pace that can’t be ignored.

Moreover with the governments avowed intent to rip the costs out of just about everything, the pressure for us all to be subsumed by a single giant beast grows. And of course DirectGov is being reviewed at present. My concerns were not helped at all by reading La Lane Fox’s  tweets this week (Martha Lane Fox, she who is doing the review)  where she is commenting about her being immersed in Direct Gov.
Martha’s Tweet

i have now read so many documents about directgov that my brain is melting – time to think now….

1:03 PM Sep 17th via web

As Martha is the Governments web guru you’d be best to take notice of  her sneezes and consider them as possible harbingers of the industry catching a cold.

More on the review of Direct Gov here…

where it says…

“The review of Directgov will focus on four key areas. These are:

  1. central government’s objectives in digital delivery
  2. who should do what?
  3. sharing the platform
  4. trends in digital delivery”

It’s the 2nd and 3rd elements that make me twitch.

Out in the Shires the more forward thinking can see a future where individual ‘district’ sites may be redundant. It’s argued they could become a part of a single whole.

It takes little stretch of even the most unimaginative to see this potential grow into something larger, possibly into a giant pot into which we all place our content. In fact into  As ever it’s the detail that may frustrate the process. The detail in fact in managing that process. Like keeping thousands of marbles together on the deck of a pitching ship. Tricky

Is this a view of an alternative future do you think; a future where we have no individual sites but share our data with a mother brain? Very “Jean Luc and the Borg”.

OK, I’ll give you,  it’s a black view of a strange landscape but one that I wouldn’t gamble on not happening.

Of course there remains a small element of LG web sites difficult to centralise i.e. the Comms element, but I’m sure that’ll not be allowed to stand in the way of the great God “Kostensenkung”. And perhaps that’s how it should be.

The age of the “Git Citizen”

I was at the “building perfect council web sites” event  at Olympia today.

Interesting opening talk by Jos Creese who is Head of IT at Hampshire CC and President of Socitm for the year.

Lots of stuff I didn’t agree with but more that I did, so on balance a good talk. I bumped into another head of web service at another council who ”thought it was the best speech by a Socitm president she had heard.”  “He was saying all the things we have known for years”  she said. I’m not certain about that but he certainly pressed some of the buttons.

He talked about re-shaping council offerings for the digital age and how sites should be developed in line with customer demand. He encouraged a degree of personalisation of the sites but that personalisation should be under users control.

One aspect of his talk I agreed with was his view that  Partnership web site construction is a good thing. He said that Hampshire shared with over  1000 sites of different sorts.

When asked a question about costs of all this he said “We are not able to do it on our own” whilst talking of shared services.

He made it clear we were set for radical change which we should welcome.   And perhaps some of those changes , with sharing more information and answering social media sites,  may  increase the number of FOI requests. This, he argued, was the inevitable bow-wave resulting from such huge changes and we should be ready for it.

He said we should take a leap of faith with what we are doing, much as we did I suppose at the birth of use of the web and e-mail. There may be political issues but we should press ahead removing the silo mentality in our sites; the public is blind to those silo’s.

Another aspect that chimed with me was his suggestion that we remove the bureaucracy surrounding much of what we do – that is getting rid of  rigid policies and procedures. Perhaps, he suggested, we should allow the managers to be more in control. Hmmm. I cant somehow see UK Local Government releasing the reigns with the alacrity, or for that matter the ease, he is suggesting. Ours is a controlled society, some of that control is political, and I cant see that changing very quickly, can you?

Next there were three talks by people involved in social networking.

First came a talk by  Dr. James Munro from Patient Opinion which seemed to be part of the NHS (Not so. See comments below. PDB. I’ll be elevating James to the peerage next) with a very specific, and in my opinion excellent, intent to make it easy for patients to comment on their NHS.

The service looked good. It allowed people to post up their opinions about NHS service,  good or bad, and he in my experience, unsurprisingly, they get a lot of positive comments. The NHS departments concerned can see these comments and can reply and if they change the service they can tell the complainant what they have changed, Excellent. Really good. Why don’t we have that on our web sites? Anyway go and take a look for yourself and use it if you have good or bad service at the hands of the NHS.

Next came a talk by Jane Postlethwaite  from Brighton and Hove. She is their Social media Officer. Much of what she said, though I didn’t hear a great deal being at the back and her being a tad quiet, seemed obvious but… she did say they are coming up with a social media policy. Despite Jos Creese asking us to be less bureaucratic I would like to have a look at that.

Lastly a piece by Nick Booth from PodNosh and founder of Now this may be the bane of our local government lives but it was an excellent talk.

Nick suggested this was the age of the “Git Citizen” who would ask the  why, how, where and how much etc. because the web has made it possible for them to do so.

The part I liked was the video showing Nick harassing parking attendants (or maybe policemen) for parking illegally. Ace. Loved it and yes it does help that it was in Birmingham and yes I am a Brummie.

Nick entreated us to:

  • Link to everything with permanent links with RSS feeds to just about everything.
  • Tag it all with place names
  • Produce consumable content on our pages
  • Ensure our content is embed-able ( videos etc)
  • And to share data openly..

Doing this would ensure the volunteers who do all this “stuff”can get at our data and do something with it.

An interesting day and as ever a little like the curates egg… good in parts. Nice little earner for Socitm though so that’s alright then.

Peter Barton