Consultants at work in the public sector – Reports from the front line

Yet there’s no denying that this time there is genuine belief that some real benefits may be achieved. “The public sector has finally realised that throwing money at a problem without working on improving processes and procedures won’t produce results,” says Mike Davies, senior research analyst at Butler Group.

At the same time, these customers still need outside help. “Organisations in the public sector use the word ‘customer’ in a way they wouldn’t have done five years ago. Then we were more likely to have heard ‘citizen’ or ‘ratepayer’. There’s definitely an emphasis on new ways to handle that customer. But no one’s found the magic bullet yet; there are lots of trials underway,” says Dave Denison, marketing manager for ICL’s government sector.

“Just like the private sector, these customers are trying to offer more and better services within the same financial limits. This is definitely a very buoyant market, with incentives like Beacon and Pathfinder funds and central government where success will be rewarded with more money,” adds Davies.

Eddie Murphy, a senior consultant covering the public sector at Cambridge-based technology research group Analysys, comments: “In some respects IP-based projects will be easier to get right. And there are certainly small contracts suggesting significant future investment.”

Certainly the public sector is open to messages about how to change in a way it’s never been before. “The public sector is starting to realise that it needs help with issues such as change management and business process reengineering. This is because adding electronic channels for service delivery onto their existing ones requires a fundamental rethink in the way they manage their internal processes,” says Karen Swinden, a director of London-based local government research firm Kable.

How can consultants help? For Denison, the role of consultants is both crucial and privileged. “The customers are often in very political situations, and the ability to be seen as neutral and offering an independent view is most welcome. Consultants often have very privileged access to influencers. We probably have better access to the Ministry than many local government chief executives.”

But there are dangers for the unwary. Davies warns that consultancies must grasp the value set of this customer base. “You have to engage the service ethos here. These people aren’t incentivised by money in the same way, and they don’t appreciate being measured by numbers.”

The following case studies from both local and central administrations and agencies show how near we may be getting to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s joined-up 2005 vision.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets contains some of the UK’s worst areas of urban deprivation. Yet it also contains 40% of all commercial redevelopment projects in London – Canary Wharf is a prime example. And it is investing £16m over the next three years in an ambitious overhaul of its interface with its customers and council tax payers, with Andersen.

“This is a major reorganisation of the way we deliver services,” says Eric Bohl, Tower Hamlets’ corporate director of customer services. “We are re-engineering from the customer backwards, joining up our databases across the entire council using CRM and middleware.

“From the point of view of a customer trying to interact with the Council it can be frustrating when they get passed on to someone else, but this is due to the fact that our work is actually very complicated. But, by building integrated one-stop shops and 24/7 customer contact centres for housing repairs and building as well as a website which will be both news-rich and highly transactional, we will be able to allow customers to track their interactions with us just as they do in the private sector.”

Glenn Carmichael is director for government services within Andersen, which is implementing technology but is also heavily engaged in process and cultural change management. “Tower Hamlets is looking to implement the modernising government initiative properly,” he stresses. “It is focusing on implementing services and improving efficiency across its entire organisation. This is a complete process redesign from front to back office.”

The first fruits of the programme is a “showcase” for Parking and Street Environment services to enable customers to interact with the Council in a variety of ways, and for the Council to manage this interaction whether it’s face-to-face in an office, by telephone, over the Internet or by post. The next phase includes customer-facing improvements in one-stop shops, planning building control, development control, corporate complaints, trade waste, land charges, education enquiries, and social services’ access lines.

“This is a very high scale, in-depth engagement but it’s important for us to be able to build self-sufficiency within the organisation for when we leave. We’ve both worked very hard on the contract to make sure this is a success,” says Carmichael.

The call centre systems are already near completion says Bohl, and the rebuilt Tower Hamlets website is also due for roll-out: “We’ll anticipate the Government’s 2005 target by one year.”

Given Scandinavia’s enthusiasm for all things “e”, it’s of no real surprise to learn that one of the most successful examples of innovative use of Internet technology in a public sector context talks Swedish.

GeL (Government eLink) is an evolving electronic interface for Swedish government agencies (ministries) for communication with citizens, enterprises and other agencies. Public key infrastructure protocols offer safe file transfer-, web server- and inter-department communication over the Internet. The network is owned by the Swedish public agencies but is run by HP and local Swedish firm Frontec.

GeL was a joint effort between the Swedish Agency for Public Management, or Statskontoret, the Swedish National Tax Board, and the Swedish National Insurance Board, with the first installation available in the first quarter of 2001. An entrepreneur launching a start-up deposits a single electronic request to a smart government pipeline. The system ensures that all the relevant agencies are contacted, monitors delays in the flow and reunites the various licences and agreements, returning them as a single packet. The result, according to HP, is a one-stop shop for the business and a parallel system that allows separate Swedish governmental departments and agencies to all work at once on the one dossier.

“This project is designed to secure the transfer of information between departments and agencies, which also can be accessed by the user over the insecure elements of the Internet,” says Nills Qwerim, director of the Department of Electronic Infrastructure for the Statskontoret.

“It is offering our citizens a one-stop shop, and is part of the whole move towards a 24/7 government agency. It is also the first implementation of web services with total security in the public sector environment that we are aware of.”

Are Sweden’s public sector initiatives as ill-starred as their UK equivalents? All Qwerim would say was that this set-up was well on target. “We’re working well together. We defined the specification together, and we in the agency are sure that we are up to speed with what is available in the market in terms of technology and especially web services.”

However, it’s nice to note that here at least Scandinavia isn’t completely trouncing the UK. “This is a start towards total e-government but is still only halfway there,” says Mats Jonsson, a consultant with HP in Sweden.

Three Rivers District Council in southwest Hertfordshire has been engaged in a four-year project to make itself more accessible to the public. Its ambition: create an environment allowing citizens to make enquiries relating to all council services, from planning applications and refuse collection to requests for housing maintenance and council tax payments, through an interface that means the right person answers the enquiry.

So in 1998 the Council overhauled its entire IT infrastructure. In September 1999, the newly installed call centre took its first call; and new services have regularly been added such as housing maintenance, council tax, environmental health and electoral registration, so that, as of April 2000, 75% of its services were available via the call centre. The Council decided to use these initiatives as a platform to build an interactive web presence to align its goals with the 2005 Whitehall target.

Phil King, support services manager at Three Rivers, says the important pillars of central government’s initiative, including social inclusion, better use of information, and sharing of information both internally and externally, are all factors in Three Rivers’ electronic initiatives. Rob Banathy, government sector manager at Parity, says Three Rivers is one of the first and most successful local government call centre projects.

“Our citizens can now see their council tax accounts and book environmental health services such as pest control online. During 2002 we will extend that to include a single service for waste and recycling within environmental health,” he says.

“The real point of 2005 is not designing a website but actual real systems integration movie information between back-office systems at and to web browsers,” he adds.

Three Rivers has won further Pathfinder funding from central government. This means that other councils will be looking to use some of its technology in their own initiatives. King says that since much of the work is based on XML it will be a replicable solution that will be easier for other councils to follow.

“Even though some of the 2005 targets are very generic and there are myriad ways of delivering them, simply building a web front end won’t make them citizen-focused in the way Three Rivers is trying to do,” says Banathy. “Essentially, it’s all about back-end integration.”

Andrew Ryan is manager of QCA Enterprises, part of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority based in Piccadilly, Central London.

QCA is a quango responsible for maintaining the body of courses and the national curriculum approved by the Government, including testing and the school key stage tests.

Led by modernising government programmes such as IAG (Information Age Government) and the work being done with the National Grid For Learning, Ryan says the organisation is actively seeking to “use technology to connect with our audience”. Specifically, it has turned to marketing support services company Prolog, which was already a supplier in terms of managing its warehousing and order fulfilment requirements, to build an online facility to handle and process orders for all QCA publications.

Ryan says the facility is due to be up early next year. Prolog, a Sudbury based firm, primarily delivers services and consultancy to enable government departments to sell or distribute their publications. “E-commerce and the Internet has come upon some government departments rather unexpectedly,” explains Guy Smith, Prolog’s commercial director. “The public sector hasn’t had the internal expertise so has turned to partners to help see it through.”

The new shopping site, although technically a separate entity to the established QCA website, is being designed so it has the same look and feel as the existing QCA site. Prolog’s e-commerce solution has been tailored to reflect the design of the main QCA website so the user has a seamless shopping experience, claims Smith.

The shopping facility is fully integrated with the company’s main order processing, stock and warehouse management systems, and offers such facilities as online stock information, order history and order tracking with links into carriers’ proof of delivery systems.

The new e-commerce site has been designed to let customers search the database for the correct publications using a wide variety/combination of routes, i.e. by keyword, product type, including scheme of work and test, qualification type (including Early Years, Key Stages 1 to 4, GNVQ), and by subject. The QCA e-commerce site is due to go live this month.

Prolog says that government users are reining in the ambitious project plans that sometimes led them astray in the past. Smith says that he sees customers “taking a far closer look at what they actually need to deliver”.

The 1998 Glidewell Review of the Criminal Justice System was critical of many of its systems, and found, in particular, that IT provision in the Crown Prosecution Service was poor in both coverage and functionality.

“There was a low base of technology and the fact that we had poor IT systems was the second highest staff complaint,” says Lonnie Carey, director of business and information systems within the CPS. “Only one in six staff had access to any sort of computer equipment, and what was available were outdated 286 and 386 machines. Only four out of the 42 national areas had computers at all. We knew we needed to become a more computer literate organisation as quickly as possible.”

The result: Connect 42, a project to computerise and link all 42 England and Wales Crown Prosecution Service areas, handled by both Bull’s hardware and Integris consulting arms, and which concluded in November 2001.

“This was almost like a greenfield site,” says Gary Young, public sector director for Integris in Hemel Hempstead. “Not exactly quill pens, but it was a big implementation in terms of PCs, servers, networks and training covering 5,300 users.”

Connect 42 has seen the implementation of new desktop systems throughout the CPS, providing Windows 2000, Microsoft Office 2000 Professional, Windows Exchange Server 5.5 and Microsoft Internet Information Server 5.0 to provide secure access to external networks via Government Secure Intranet (GSI), the Criminal Justice Extranet (CJX) and the Internet. Events have overtaken the original aims and this is now “very much part of the modernising government initiative”, says Carey. The project is indeed the first step in a £1bn overhaul of the Criminal Justice System’s IT, covering six strategic systems set for completion in 2005. “Integris offered the best value for money and could demonstrate expertise,” says Carey. “An organisation like us depends on external expertise and looks to consultancies to offer both best practice, a variety of experience and a degree of independence.”

The project was completed and met its targets. “It went well, though we had some difficulties in the middle,” says Young. “After evaluating where we were, we had to regroup and re-install bits of software with Microsoft’s help. But achieving delivery on time and on budget is unusual in both IT projects and in government, so we’re very happy.”[QQ]

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