Coinciding with the launch of the most recent Eduserv ‘Local Government Executive Briefing Programme’s (LG EBP) publication – “Shared Services – Getting IT Right”, Bristol City Council hosted a thought-leadership event on the topic this month.
It was an interactive session, with insight into the research work by Eduserv and from two outstanding external speakers: Matt Prosser, CEO for the Dorset Councils’ Partnership and Max Wide, Strategic Director of Business Change for Bristol City Council and spokesperson for SOLACE.
Max Wide - Shared Services, whats works, where next?
Max spoke about the challenges he faced in finding the right models for Bristol to deal with a wide variety of public/private delivery partnerships, noting that many people misunderstand or misjudge just how complex some of the arrangements need to be to reflect the range of local services and priorities. In Bristol this has included waste and energy management, superfast broadband across the City, and other businesses, creating a ‘Bristol Group’ of holding companies. Success has come from the City Council building open networks in which connections and collaborations can flourish.
He explained that Bristol City Council partnerships are more about creating value from sharing than just about savings and efficiencies through economies of scale. They are about working with a wide range of public and private partners locally, to create capacity, resilience and better outcomes for the public.
Max highlighted that Organisation Development (OD) and IT specialists need to work much more closely together - “if they did they would change the world, and outside of local government they already have”.
Matt Prosser - Dorset Councils partnership, Shared services programme
Matt had a very contrasting story to tell. He led a single tri-Council merger for North Dorset, Weymouth and Portland and West Dorset. Called “Stronger Together”, the Dorset example is of collaboration between smaller and very diverse councils, in a mix of urban and rural areas. The main challenge lay in reconciling differing cultures – something which was a familiar story with many organisations who have spoken with the Eduserv LG EBP for the research.
Matt described some remarkable progress in Dorset, including 30% reduction in costs where amalgamations have been completed – in areas such as revenues and benefits, economic regeneration and customer services. Perhaps more challenging, Matt is now working with members in tackling Democratic Services and Committee Management system overheads.
He noted that sometimes relatively small things can make a big difference. For example, the positive impact of creating a single email domain for all the councils ‘@dorset.gov.uk’. Staff are also now sharing offices where appropriate, removing the barriers of different physical territory. Also, new shared technologies have allowed greater cross-service working, such as using webchat, shared across boundaries. Harmonising IT policies and practices has been important, Matt said – contracts, procedures, projects and expectations were initially very different across the three councils and needed to be resolved.
Both examples support the findings of the Eduserv LG EBP research about the importance of getting the IT right. This does not mean that it’s all about the IT – far from it. But over-looking the risks, barriers and the opportunities of technology can strangle a shared service programme, however well-intentioned. This is no different to the experience of the private sector, where typically 50% of a merger and acquisition value (and risk) has been shown to be related to IT synergies.
Everyone agreed about the importance of ‘getting IT right’ and the need for due diligence at the outset of a shared services programme. This should look in detail at:
- IT assets
- Existing contracts
- Differing practices.
The Eduserv LG EBP is always practical – it is about real examples of sharing, ‘warts and all’. Discussions at the Bristol event covered the political difficulties and cultural barriers to sharing. What was clear was the importance of strong, committed and visible leadership, such as Matt and Max, in navigating a shared service programme through inevitably choppy waters.
The event concluded by looking to the future: shared services will increase. This may be as a result of growing devolution, pooled budgets and pressure on resources; but most importantly is the need to join up services to be more meaningful to service users.