Bristol's strategic director points to new direction for local authorities in shared services discussion
Shared services have made sporadic progress in local government. They have been on the agenda for more than a decade, but most initiatives have included only a handful of councils. Some have worked successfully and others have stuttered.
This record has led some advocates to despair of the prospects for wider take-up – often seen as a crucial step in dealing with the financial squeeze on councils. Bbut there is a view that taking shared services beyond the familiar emphasis on sharing back office IT and processes could push it closer to its potential.
Max Wide, strategic director of business change for Bristol City Council, has said the future of the movement could be in the development of shared platforms. Speaking at a seminar organised by not-for-profit IT services provider Eduserv, he highlighted the rising power of “platform organisations” in the private sector, and said this could influence future solutions for local government.
“Where we go next with shared services is in the development of a shared platform,” Wide said. “It doesn't have to be owned or procured by one organisation and it may be built in sections or parts.
“There would be some kind of matching or brokering facility, and a way that people could rate and narrate the services they are receiving. We're used to doing that in other areas. People would need to be able to self-serve and access communities of interest, partly because they could help each other and form the basis of a community that could help us to redesign.”
Spreading the load
He added: “The paradigm for a platform organisation and the next step for shared services is to say we don't have to do all this for ourselves. In a city like Bristol and lots of other places there are a lot of people who would happily get involved.”
There is a parallel with the role of the Apple Store as a platform on which people can develop services, and which creates the potential for a much wider range of applications than any organisation could create itself.
“It's not the Uber solution, not buying a big system on behalf of everyone else, but providing a platform on which they can run development,” Wide said. “I've been talking with Adur & Worthing about their work in developing a low code platform that enables business analysts and service managers to develop applications.
“Over time you build things that are increasingly useful and don't have to build them all yourself.
“We are complex organisations and won't be able to do all this ourselves. It's partly about connecting with the creativity of other people.”
He added a note of caution, with the point that different groups have different conceptions of what makes a platform. This comes down to differing perspectives of the ICT community, which sees the platform as something very specific about the delivery of something and talks about the digital platform, and the organisational development community.
They need to work together more efficiently to help realise the full potential.
A more familiar account of a shared service came from Matt Prosser, chief executive of the Dorset Councils Partnership Shared Service Programme, which provides a shared staff pool for North and West Dorset District Councils and Weymouth & Portland Borough Council. He said it is important to understand managers' perspectives on IT, and had introduced drop-in sessions for them to talk about technology.
“You need people who don't fear technology, who can talk to the managers about how to use technology for best effect and how to manage their teams via technology,” he said.
“We now have systems embedded for home workers and agile workers in the field, who text in to say when they have arrived for employment and text out when they have finished the job, and it works absolutely fine.”
Jos Creese, principal analyst at Eduserv, identified a common IT problem in shared services: that the complexity of the underlying infrastructure makes it difficult, risky and expensive to fully merge systems and it may be better to start from scratch.
“If you haven't done due diligence and understood that, then you're likely to have a difficult and expensive journey that will upturn your business case,” he said.
“The private sector has generally learned that lesson for mergers and acquisitions, doing a lot of due diligence around the technology, but we often don't.
“If we did that, not only would we understand the risks but also some of the opportunities. They are in areas such as having a shared platform that is mutually branded, and in my view that's where things like cloud services can be quite useful.”
Creese acknowledged that problems that often derive from a sense of one council dominating others in an arrangement, but said these can be overcome by the neutrality of using a third party, or mutual branding. It also provides the opportunity to start building from scratch, which often provides a better chance of success than trying to adjust the services already in place.
“The shared service programmes I have seen that have been successful have started with being clear about the target operating model, about the cultural change needed, and in particular having a strong senior chief executive. Having a chief executive ready to stand up in front of the troops and say 'We know this will be tough, there will be problems, but we are standing side by side to make a success of this' immediately sweeps away a lot of the middle management concerns, and perhaps some of the resistance at more junior level.”