Interview: Matt Prosser, policy spokesperson for digital leadership at SOLACE, highlights the need for local government to take the risks in breaking away from legacy IT systems
Cloud based systems are providing a great potential for local authorities to upgrade their digital estates, but some are proving slow in facing up to the inevitable risk, according to Matt Prosser.
It is a big issue in his role as policy spokesperson for digital leadership at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), and it was among those he highlighted at last week’s ShareDigital conference in London.
Speaking with UKAuthority, he makes clear that although there is a risk in a migration, it is one that has to be taken, and that local authorities should be more ready to learn from each other and their partners.
“The challenge with legacy systems is that they are just that; they’re large and have served their purpose but we need something much more agile,” he says.
“The Government Transformation Strategy last year talked about moving away from that to give us more agility and the ability to move with the times much more quickly. It can take three or four years to install a system, and by the time you’ve done so it’s out of date for what the customer needs. We need to adapt much more flexible systems.”
Configuration and agility
Although not a techie by nature, he points to the potential of cloud based systems to meet these needs, especially those that are configurable to manage business processes without the need of heavy duty customisation. This gives authorities a lot more agility in making changes every few months if necessary, rather than at the beginning and end of contracts, and without heavy costs.
Prosser acknowledges that the contracts on legacy systems can hold back change, especially when those for different systems are not aligned, but says councils should not sit back and wait for their expiry.
“My challenge is to go back to the sector and ask how they are making those changes, and not wait until the end of the contract. If you’re the last person standing with a legacy system you’ll struggle to get it serviced and kept up to date.
“One of the barriers is the length of some contracts, but local authorities have to think the cost of introducing some of those services, and the risk profile. We have to take the risks as we haven’t got the money and time to sit around waiting for systems to be introduced.”
The risk can be managed: he points to “robust systems” for testing software, and the ability to learn from other councils and private sector organisations that have made similar migrations.
“Sometimes local government has said we are special and have to have our own things, but we can learn from others and take some of the systems from them,” he says.
Shared service faith
Framework contracts for tested solutions and shared services are also helping to relieve some of the pressure. His faith in the latter reflects his day job as chief executive officer of the Dorset Councils Partnership, a shared service between North Dorset and West Dorset District Councils and Weymouth & Portland Borough Council.
This has claimed savings of more than £3 million a year since its launch in 2011, although changes are in store with the plans for Dorset’s nine councils to be rationalised into two unitaries - Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch & Poole Council - from April of next year.
Prosser says conversations are taking place around the possibility of a joint IT estate, but no decisions have yet been made: questions are still being asked about what digital platforms will be created, and what can be jointly procured between the two new councils.
“We’ve got all the existing nine councils contributing to the debate, but how we develop the two is a conversation we are having at the moment,” he says.
But the shake-up also provides an opportunity to deal with the legacy issues, and to put into practice some points for digital leaders that Prosser raised in his conference speech. These include the fact that you don’t have to be an early adopter to be transformative, but that it is very important to learn from partners and keep the focus on customers and outcomes.
It is also important to develop agility in how you work, and to get ahead of the curve in developing solutions to deal with financial and demographic pressures before they create an unsustainable strain.
“It needs adaptive leadership to avoid chaos as you grow and change, because you need ever more higher performing people,” he says.