In the age of austerity, councils have no choice but to look into the possibility of sharing services. But while it's a major change, the process needn't be painful: once trust is built, cash savings, doubled productivity and improved self-service for the user are all possible.
However getting the right technology in place is among the secrets of successful shared services uncovered in a new minidocumentary and published report by UKAuthority.com, 'The first steps: bringing a culture of trust to shared services'.
The film follows up recent research which found that for local government, police, fire and health services as a whole, "sharing services is an absolute requirement as funding is significantly cut". More than half of the 479 senior respondents to the survey were already involved in the planning or implementation of shared services.
Several current leaders of successful shared services are interviewed including Geoff Connell, chief information officer for the shared IT service of Newham and Havering London boroughs. "Building trust is absolutely critical," Connell says. "Organisations won't work together unless there is a degree of trust, and trust is earned and built over time."
Paul Taylor, director of change and communities at Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, says: "Trust is earned, and it's easily given away. Part of the issue of trust is around communication. It's around communicating frequently, communicating honestly, and openly as organisations and down through our individual structures.
"The key thing for us was how the actual shared service would take place, and strong leadership was one of the big things that came out. So having the chief executive there and the chief officers working together, and also the members involved as well, was important."
In the UKAuthority research, eight in 10 respondents thought that technology was an important means of underpinning and enabling shared services.
"Technology is fundamentally important in a shared service, and it's an easy way to start," says Matthew Stammers, director at Capita. "What you can do is align your technology platforms to start with. That allows you to make savings immediately through economies of scale."
The WestWey Partnership delivering a shared revenues and benefits service between three Dorset councils - Purbeck, West Dorset and Weymouth and Portland - has already delivered £1.2m reduction in the councils' combined annual budgets. This has led to two of the councils - West Dorset and Weymouth and Portland - to share further services, in a move estimated to deliver further savings of £2.5m a year.
WestWey partnership manager, Stuart Dawson, told UKAuthority that leadership and communication were the keys to success. "We had buy-in from the top, and the chief executive led in many of the areas. Communication both externally and internally is key. Staff are fearful of the unknown and will always want to be kept informed as to progress.
"We were able to share skill sets across the partnership, and by joining staff together we noticed that where we had gaps in one council they were filled by the skill sets from other councils."
If change is not pushed through too fast, staff will therefore begin to see opportunities rather than threats, Dawson said. "We have focused on evolution rather than revolution. As a result of that we've been able to take staff with us, because there's not been massive change in the way they work and operate. Some councils will be reluctant to enter into partnership because of fear of losing identity, [but] in our experience that's not the case."
Another successful current project is Compass Point Business Services (CPBS), a private company which is wholly owned by East Lindsey District Council and South Holland DC.
Marcus Hobbs, transformation director at CPBS, says that shared services projects combine three activities: business process reengineering; IT procurement to underpin this; and strong ongoing management. He says that one clear sign of their own success has been a doubling of staff productivity since the company was formed.
"So that's in just over a year, with new systems still not fully bedded in... the fact of the matter is that the staff have engaged with the process. And through that, by increasing the level of focus, by taking out those unnecessary steps, we have doubled the productivity which means it is sustainable in the longer term.
"I think staff are excited to be part of something very innovative, very new, and want to share in that journey."
A third successful pioneer is the South Worcestershire Revenues and Benefi ts Shared Service which is saving £1.3m a year for its three partner councils: Malvern Hills, Worcester City and Wychavon. As well as revenues and benefits it also covers building control and IT services.
Vic Allison, deputy managing director at Wychavon, says that moving to a single IT system was key. "The pooled investment can buy you better technology, and the shared service is the catalyst for that change also - so we have been able to invest in quite a lot of new technology, including self-serve for our customer base. So there's a customer benefi t as well as effi ciency gains for the councils."
This point is key: shared service might save money, but cutting cost is not the only driver. The research found that seven in 10 respondents also see opportunities for innovation, service redesign and improved service quality in the move to shared services.
"Local authorities cannot continue to run the same types of services in the same ways," says Capita's Matthew Stammers. "What we've seen is that organisations that just get on with it fi nd it builds trust, and they build from there."
Click here to read more about , 'The first steps: bringing a culture of trust to shared services' and download the full report.