When the coalition government was formed a week after the general election of May 2010, it made it clear that economies would have to be made in local government, and that one of the ways in which local authorities could do that would be to embrace shared services.
That would mean sharing not just back-office functions, such as payroll processing, across local authority boundaries, but perhaps pooling front-line services too.
In truth, shared services is not a new idea, but the renewed impetus driven by real cuts in local authority budgets has certainly concentrated minds in many local authorities - especially in central London, where Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea have led the way.
"It's effectively our response to the very significant funding constraints imposed on local government that we recognised we had to absorb, and the realisation that 'salami slicing' local services was not going to deliver the financial savings that we need to deliver - while also maintaining a service quality acceptable to our residents," says Ben Goward, CIO at Westminister City Council.
What this meant in practical terms was that the three councils have effectively merged a number of services at ground-level, while working towards a full merger of their respective IT organisations as each council's IT is standardised on the same systems.
"The shared services agenda has been driven very hard from an organisational perspective. The three boroughs came together at the service-level and, very quickly, the services themselves began to work together," says Goward. "So in adults' and children's social care, and libraries, front-facing services comprised of staff from all three separate organisations are being brought together, in many cases in a single location, and all working together on a single case load."
Merging the three IT organisations, though, will take some time. Not just because they have traditionally been run in very different ways, but also because each has services and supply contracts with different vendors that need to be naturally concluded before mergers in different areas can take place. At the same time, the three organisations also need to agree on the specifications for the new systems, based on some common principles, on a case-by-case basis.
Hence, the approach taken by the three councils, says Goward, involved an agreed framework towards which each council would move, as and when they could. "One of the things that we realised early on was that we would need to bring together the three basic compute environments in terms of desktop, data centre and support desk into one. So the IT management teams across the three organisations started to work together to agree a common specification that we could go out to market for a framework contract that we would then adopt," says Goward.
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