A debate held by Local Digital has scrutinised what local government and its suppliers need to do to make proper, technology-enabled collaboration a reality.
The discussion, chaired by Local Digital’s Head of Communications Helen Bedford Olsen, centred on collaboration across teams, departments and organisations to meet the needs of people: needs that cut across traditional public sector organisational boundaries.
The drive to collaborate has recently intensified with government demand to bring social and health care services together.
“There are common things we do across the public sector”, said panellist Jos Creese, President, British Computer Society and former CIO, Hampshire County Council. “If we did them in one common way it would allow us to divert more resource to the front line, to things that matter most to the public, rather than to the running of our businesses.
“At the moment, efficiency through process alignment and common ways of doing things is still very disparate. Information sharing to deliver a better service is a no brainer but not easy to do, especially in health and social care”, said Creese.
What is preventing more organisations from joining up systems to provide more efficient services? One of the reasons is cultural resistance to change. A live poll conducted among the audience during the debate found that 95% of respondents thought that changing the organisation is tougher than changing the technology.
Cultural change is “much more important than the technology – I’d go as far to say it was a barrier”, Creese said. “The tone is set by leaders in our organisations. The culture required for true collaboration is different to what we had in the past. Middle and senior managers adopted the right culture that allowed collaboration to happen. It’s a question of how to make that change real so it takes root”.
Fear of losing control may also play a part. “There’s an issue about sovereignty – whose going to lead and who’ll follow? You don’t want to be held back because you’re working in a collaborative environment”.
Jonathan Black, Head of ICT Service Delivery at Cambridgeshire Constabulary said that younger staff can be a catalyst. “There’s a good opportunity with culture change. As we see the younger generation coming through, we’re being pushed continually as an ICT department to make more changes – working in the same way as they do at home”.
The constabulary is working with Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Constabularies to improve collaboration via a multiagency unit, although he says information sharing is “still very difficult”.
Despite the need to change culture, the panel agreed that the IT needs to change as well. When so many parts of the public sector run the same functions, it may make most sense to implement commoditised technology; an out-of-the-box, rather than a bespoke solution.
“I think the public sector is special”, Creese said. “It’s a complex area because of the interaction between different components that need to be drawn together across different organisations to service individuals, many of whom are vulnerable”, he said.
“Sometimes in IT we think there’s no [room for] commodity stuff and it all needs to be tailored”, said Creese. “IT professionals should be able to judge which things are sufficiently mature in the marketplace from our relationship with suppliers and our experience to say which solutions can go in the cloud and which need a degree of design and build”.
But Black had a different perspective. “Around four to five years ago, we turned around and said we’re no different to any other business, we don’t need bespoke policing solutions. We’ve taken the approach of commoditising”. He said that often, IT departments tended to think they are bespoke or ‘special’ and their area of expertise is needed, instead of using out-of-the-box functionality.
Martin Lewis, Local Government Solutions Lead at Microsoft, said that commoditisation lends itself to the least complex solutions. The benefit of using commoditised technology from the cloud is that you can refocus your effort on the “really tricky stuff”, like integration and dealing with legacy IT, he said.
“If you produce solutions on an open platform, that’s fine, but if an organisation does ‘x’ differently, then you’ve got to change the solution” Lewis said. His shared services client at London Borough of Newham, which shares a customer case management solution with Havering and Waltham Forest councils – “Government As A Platform if you will” – has saved an “impressive” amount of money and improved services he said.
Black said that it was up to top management to take the steer and give people the time and ability to change their way of working and to collaborate.
“You have to have buy-in and it has to be communicated correctly”, he said. “You can put out all the tools in world, but if you don’t tell users how they can utilise them and how they bring benefit and efficiency to their role, they won’t use them. You get one opportunity to get it right”. A “spectrum” of staff must be involved in implementation, he said.
Once in place, collaborative technology can have a fundamental impact on working culture. Black said at Cambridgeshire Constabulary, use of IP telephony internally has vastly improved efficiency. “The technology has completely changed how we work. We have more meetings online, we use messaging. We bring police officers together from 30 places”.
His organisation has also invested heavily in mobile technology to collaborate more. “It’s absolutely changing how we’re working”. He said training used to take place at the Police station via Powerpoint. “Now we’re pushing information out to people’s mobiles”.
Leadership is key, said Creese. “You need leadership to say ‘we’ve understood what you’re doing and we’re going to take an interest in it. It’s not just about rolling up your sleeves and doing some coding”.
More broadly, collaboration – or more specifically, sharing data – will be much more widely supported with the Public Service Network (PSN) fully in place. But implementation of the network infrastructure allowing government organisations to securely share information is a work in progress.
“The PSN journey has been a long one”, said Creese. “It’s a genuine collaboration between central government (GDS) and local government. We went through a difficult blip a few years ago and unfortunately, we’re still coming out of it. We’ve got to put that in the past. You don’t want every local authority doing its own thing – that’s the opportunity PSN presents. The concept of a common shared infrastructure across the public sector is absolutely imperative”, he said.
Another live poll conducted live during the debate among the audience revealed that 89% agreed that a lack of common standards, schemas, APIs and integration between systems presents a barrier to ‘smart’ collaboration. Black agreed. “We absolutely have to share data across the government space. In policing we’re working on this with our criminal justice partners and with local government”.
Again, there was a fine balance to strike. Creese said that there were some areas where a lack of standards is “An absolute barrier. But it’s very important we don’t try and have standards for everything. It’ll drive out creativity and best practice”, he said.
If collaboration is really going to work, the role of industry was “absolutely key” said Black. “The days of tied-in systems where only the front end application will talk to their back end is starting to change”, he said. “Another challenge is getting vendors to open APIs that we can integrate”.
Creese said that traditional ways of working in the private sector are no longer flexible enough. “It’s not about the tools, but the way you do business. Some of them know. If you don’t adapt, you will lose business. There are plenty of open source tools out there and cloud is going to have real sway over traditional outsourcing”, he said.
Overall, the challenges are clear – cultural resistance, data sharing and ownership, as well as trust are the main ones. But – perhaps partly due to the lower costs of cloud delivery – the issue of budget was surprisingly absent from the debate.
“The bigger blocker is political sovereignty”, said Creese. “Whose IT department is it anyway? ‘Will I have to compromise my service plan if I collaborate with others?’. It’s also Politics – you need an honest discussion to see if you have a genuine melding of ambition. After that, trust and data are big issues – even more than money”.
Watch the video of the debate. http://www.ukauthority.com/local-digital-news-blog/entry/5370/localdigital-live-smart-collaboration-across-communities