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The case for standardisation

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Increased demands on public services have been recognised for some years. Changes in demography and public expectations prompt the view that 21st century public sector service design will have to be very different to the somewhat evolutionary nature of activity over the last 50 years or so.

The combination of cost, quality and transparency expected in future are undeliverable using existing thinking. Each council claims to be different to the next. Whilst this may be true in terms of the leadership of the place they operate in, it is not true in terms of the operation of its services.

We are not all different. What is needed now are quickly deployable packages of policy, process design and ICT that lead to assured outcomes (in terms of cost, quality and delivery). This means standardising operations to a significantly greater extent than we do today.

It is only when harmonisation is achieved that benefits realisation will begin

The technology now exists so that if public sector bodies were able to share policy and process design it would create a genuinely contestable market for shared web based ICT applications.

The Software as a Service market is probably now mature enough to deliver a local government portal containing standard ICT products - a collection of integrated ‘apps’ that cover everything from trading standards to social care. This package of standardised policy, process design and ICT changes the way we can think about shared services and its close cousin, outsourcing.

The problem with current shared services approaches is that a great deal of time and cost is expended exploring, specifying, and mobilising before harmonisation of processes takes place. It is only when harmonisation is achieved that benefits realisation will begin, usually some years after the process first started.

The challenge is to re-order this sequence so that harmonisation comes first, leading to much earlier benefits delivery. Using shared process on the way in to a shared service relationship, and undertaking to track the current best process as it improves, offers a very clear path to develop any partnership.

The more software that is required to be hosted locally the more hardware is required and the greater the ongoing cost of maintenance

This pre-definition of specification and common process language should reduce the time taken to negotiate outsourced contracts and lead to clearer expectations from all parties. If many councils are using the same processes, it is a short step to using exactly the same computer systems.

At present the sector spends a great deal of money on slightly different configurations of the same application. ICT providers complain that each client believes they are different and require unique configurations of software. Whilst providers know clients are not that different there is no commercial incentive for them to do less work for each one and deliver a very standard offer.

The more software that is required to be hosted locally the more hardware is required and the greater the ongoing cost of maintenance. This vicious circle can be reversed.

The more shared web based software that is used the less computing power is required on desktops and in local server rooms. Taken to its logical conclusion we have small, cheap (to both buy and run) computers on desktops that are refreshed much less often and less infrastructure on site.

The opportunities for SMEs, or indeed partial Management Buy Outs (MBO), is obvious with small businesses being set up to offer to run specific processes, a much less risky and more flexible proposition for councils than a complete outsourced service(s).

Imagine what would happen if we all simply refuse to buy software unless it comes in a cloud

Transparency both to local people and central government has become increasingly important. Web based technologies make it relatively easy to be transparent at little cost. Local people and central government would be able to easily and cheaply ‘see into the machine’, eliminating the costs of servicing the relationship with central government.

Now is the time to challenge very hard whether we are concentrating our efforts in the right place. People care about the place not the uniqueness of the software, or process we use to deliver our services.

We need to send a clear signal to our suppliers that we want something different, something standardised, something that will continuously improve at a low cost.

I don’t have an easy answer here because this will require a major change in approach by both customers and suppliers, but imagine what would happen if we all simply refuse to buy software unless it comes in a cloud and is accompanied with shared, free policy and process design. Lets all stop being different.

Ian Trenholm, chief executive, Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead

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