Believe it or not, Cassandra was right
The predictions for shared services can be likened to those of Cassandra in Greek mythology - they’ve never been believed.
Public sector executives have long seen this concept’s value - authorities can serve communities using common processes and technology infrastructures.
The first wave of shared service discussions saw councils sizing up large-scale joint arrangements. These faded away as the reality dawned that councils, executives and departments would have to give up territory and responsibilities to make sharing work.
The second wave saw partnerships based on more pragmatic assumptions: a cluster of authorities could build critical mass by interlocking their outlooks or systems over time. Sadly, many schemes failed because of demarcation or complexity issues.
However, lessons were learned. Councils worked out where they could build common ground and how business processes and ICT could be shared.
We believe a third wave of shared services is emerging.
There is a wider move to share selected departmental services, such as revenues and benefits, customer service, parking, etc.
Councils have transformed their handling of back office workloads using virtualised departments and flexible teams, so it is easier to share operations.
Another key characteristic of third-generation shared services is that they are using more flexible central ICT resources or data centres. These hubs help the organisation respond more effectively to changing local demands while reducing transaction costs.
Some councils are building their own centres of excellence - work processing hubs for neighbours and partners, using their own staff. These new centres provide a simple way to plug in administrative resources as demand fluctuates. They also facilitate multi-partner collaborations and streamlining on areas such as welfare administration.
Crucially, these hubs retain councils’ workforce and knowledge in their own locality. They have willing public sector partners because many organisations have worked out that they need to outsource workloads and use others’ ICT networks. The demarcation issues have fallen away.
Councils are also becoming more adept at selecting expert ICT or system support from private partners. External service providers are also supporting new models more adeptly.
In the third wave of shared services, local government and its partners are sharing resources pragmatically and flexibly. They have broken the Cassandra curse and provided us with shared services that we can all believe in and benefit from.
Paul Bradbury, business development director, Civica