An obvious area in which councils can increase efficiency is IT. But while the benefits of effective IT projects are potentially vast, there are also lessons that can be learned and pitfalls to be avoided.
Councils can benefit from the advice of others that have successfully put in place new IT systems. Sam Fowler, project delivery manager at Southwark Council, explains that when the council improved finance systems, it made sure it had a clear overall vision of what was needed before the project began.
“Being very clear about what you want from the outset is very important,” he says, adding that rather than “dive in” with a new software system, “there’s nothing wrong with pen and paper first of all”.
At Southwark, project managers had relied on a variety of spreadsheets and payment systems to keep track of financial information. This made it harder to manage forecasted spends, overspends, actual costs and budgets. A lack of ‘live’ information was also a problem.
Steve Platts, head of property, says: “As part of an ongoing review of our project management processes, a need was identified to simplify and standardise our financial and programme monitoring, forecasting and reporting.”
The solution was a new online system from ProjectProgress, compliant with the existing PRINCE2 project management system used at Southwark, which allows managers to remotely manage live financial information relating to capital building projects. It is, as Mr Fowler puts it, putting information “into a more robust and shared environment”.
The system provides a combination of time and cost information and enables accurate forecasting of spend that remains live as programme dates change and money is actually spent. “If any individual gets a phone call they can be confident about the information they are giving to others,” says Mr Fowler.
Exact figures on savings are not yet available, but the benefits are being felt: project managers are reporting that they have more time to focus on managing and delivering projects.
The need to be clear about what IT projects are meant to achieve is underlined by Terry Street, product manager for procurement and outsourcing at Socitm Consulting.
“Councils need to stop just buying IT solutions that are tools for the techies but do not change business outcomes, so the benefits are not realised. The solution may enable lots of benefits but does it deliver on them?” he says. “The antidote is to go for fully managed solutions, not ones where you focus on the technology supplied.”
He adds that councils should be looking for arrangements with suppliers that are based on meeting efficiency goals. “Councils need to go for ‘risk reward’ - incentives for service providers to improve their efficiency and improve services, and share the savings and benefits.”
An example is Bury MBC’s planning and building control IT system. Software supplied by the IDOX Group deals with activities including development and building control, development plans, trading standards, grants and land charges.
Bury MBC and IDOX have an arrangement whereby remuneration is linked to the council meeting its performance targets. Under the scheme the council and supplier agreed on what was to be achieved - specifically performance and efficiency gains as part of a wider change programme.
Another IT project that has brought about substantial efficiency gains is Devon County Council’s overhaul of its social care records system. Working in partnership with the local primary care trust, the council instituted a ‘joined up’, shared system to replace one that was heavily dependent on paperwork and multiple, complex spreadsheets updated by administration support.
Traditionally, when a member of the public made contact, their data would be put into Frontline, Devon’s customer relationship management (CRM) system and often re-entered into CareFirst, the case management system.
Devon staff would also have to search the CRM and CareFirst to find out if a member of the public was already known to social services.The result was a laborious process with a large amount of duplication.
A new system provided by OLM Group now means that client data only needs to be inputted once, and users can access both systems through a single application.
“Patients are only asked to provide personal information on first contact. From that point forwards information is available across health and social services. [A benefit is that] the patient feels important and known to the organisation,” says Angie Wadsworth, head of professional services at the OLM Group.
Damian Furniss, head of information management and technology at Devon County Council, says: “Integration allows handover and assessment over the phone there and then, when previously these individuals would be put onto a waiting list and would have to wait for a face-to-face assessment in their own home.”
Another shortcoming of the old system was that everyone making contact had to go through the same process, whether their needs were straightforward or complex. Now, says Mr Furniss, “a single case can go through three tiers [of assessment] in one day or call”.
Time and money has been saved by not having to re-enter information, and the information available is more accurate, which makes decision-making easier and service outcomes clearer.
Users can carry out a combined search of both Frontline and CareFirst, thus accessing more information, and users from different departments can share and consolidate case records more efficiently and quickly.
Mr Furniss says that one of the keys to successfully implementing the new system was seeing it as part of a wider strategy. “It was very much a programme of business change projects and the key therefore is involvement and buy-in of operational staff.”
This was achieved by appointing a full-time lead practitioner who worked alongside the project manager. The lead practitioner appointed ‘champions’ to explain the system to other staff, as well as running ‘road shows’ and attending meetings.
But while there are many ways to ensure IT projects achieve the efficiencies they are meant to, Mr Furniss advises that one other factor is vital to the success of any project. “The other thing is ensuring the full backing of the leadership of the organisation,” he says.
Find out more
Sam Fowler, project delivery manager, Southwark Property.
Devon County Council
Damian Furniss, head of information management and technology at the Adult and Community Services Directorate.
IT Trends 2008-09: Uncharted Waters is available from www.socitm.gov.uk