Case study: Amber Valley meets its e-gov objectives

Located in the heart of Derbyshire, Amber Valley Borough Council employsover 1,000 people to deliver key public sector services, to local citizens.

With an annual budget of £50m, the Council has recently moved awayfrom the traditional short term budgetary approach towards a rolling threeyear budget. In common with other authorities Amber Valley has faced majorchallenges in balancing its budget: as well as striving to attain costsavings from across the authority, the Council is committed to meet theGovernment’s stated objectives for e-Government.

As David Fox, financial services manager, Amber Valley Borough Council,explains, ‘In addition to the introduction of proactive processes fordelivering efficiency savings, the Best Value process, where councilservices are reviewed and independently inspected, also continues to providea mechanism that ensures the services the Council provides are efficient,economic and effective.’

The importance the Council places on such services is demonstrated by thisgoal being one of the authority’s five strategic objectives.

Best Value
To be successful, these initiatives have to be underpinned by the rightfinancial management processes supported by excellent access to budgetaryinformation. During the last decade, Amber Valley introduced commitmentaccounting to improve budgetary control. However, while this improvedfinancial management, a lack of easy access to detailed financialinformation across the authority constrained further improvements.

In 1998, Amber Valley decided to replace its financial application and takethe opportunity to embrace new technology developments, such as Windows, tocreate a platform for on going public sector developments. The authorityreviewed eight applications, all of which purported to offer true MicrosoftWindows functionality.

Says Fox, ‘It was fundamentally important to Amber Valley to exploit theWindows expertise already in place in the Council. We also wanted a fullyfunctional system that could support us in the new millennium. Yet, most ofthe systems we viewed were really character based with Windows front ends -we needed more.’

As a result, the Council turned away from traditional local authoritysoftware suppliers to PS Financials, a Peterborough-based software developerand purchased PS Financials and PS Distribution. PS Financials is anintegrated suite of accounting, purchase order, sales order processing andstock control applications, designed around a unified ledger (a singleunderlying database) to provide immediate access to data. PS Distribution isa buyer’s management system incorporating automated budget allocation andcommitment accounting. Fully Microsoft compatible, PS Financials is client/ server, web-enabled system that integrates in a very simple andstraightforward way with other operational systems within the organisation.

‘There was a risk in going with a product that was not used by other LocalAuthorities,’ Fox confirms. ‘But we wanted a product that would take usforward and give us the security of knowing that it would support ouron-going developments in the delivery of public services. It was clear toall of us who had evaluated the product at Amber Valley that PS Financialswas the product we needed to move forward successfully.’

Improved Budgetary Control
The solution was implemented in 1998 and integrated with the Council’s corebusiness applications, including Housing Repairs, Payroll and HR, Income &Sundry Debtors, Housing Benefit and Council Tax.

The software has played a key role in enabling the Council to address thee-Government objectives. Using PS Financials, the Council now pays 77% ofits 26,000 invoices electronically – either via BACS or other automatedmeans.

In addition, PS Distribution includes an automatic user defined workflowmanagement system that enables requisitions to pass through differentauthorisation procedures, culminating in a purchase order being produced.As a result of improved processes, Amber Valley pays 80% of invoices within30 days.

Says Fox, ‘The adoption of electronic processes will take place over severalstages. The next stage will be to deliver remittance advices electronically.Then we will be able to embrace the complete e-Government agenda withelectronic purchasing.’ He continues, ‘PS Financials’ support for web-basedtechnologies such as XML provides us with the infrastructure to embrace fulle-Government services to meet the 2005 objectives.’

Excellent Reporting
With over 30 core Finance users who use PS Financials for financialmanagement, invoice processing and cost control, the system also provideskey financial information to over 100 budget holders throughout theauthority.

As Fox says, ‘Not only does the solution support commitment accounting butits flexible reporting structure enables us to devolve financial managementacross the authority. It is extremely easy to use, which means we were ableto provide access to the information to budget holding staff, from seniormanagers to junior personnel, without intensive, training.’

Amber Valley has also exploited PS Financials’ reporting flexibility todeliver detailed budgetary information. Using drill down functionality,users can start with an overview of, for example, the Council’s annualstationery spend and then drill down to the individual transaction level togain a greater understanding of individual budget holders spending trends.

Says Fox, ‘Devolved financial management is a core objective of Amber Valleyand can only be achieved if users are comfortable with the system. PSFinancials eases the process of information access, empowering individualbudget holders to manage their own budgets.’

Meeting Council Objectives
This detailed information played a key role in enabling Amber Valley toachieve savings in excess of £400,000 to meet budgetary restrictions in2001-2002. The 2002-2003 budget includes provision for a further £500,000savings, enabling the Council to meet its budgetary objectives. Foxconfirms, ‘The availability of detailed information from PS Financialsenabled Amber Valley to identify how to achieve these financial savings.’

As well as supporting the requirements of individual budget holders, theflexibility of the solution has enabled the Council to respond easily toorganisational change, which is of great importance to the Council who arecurrently progressing with a transfer of its housing stock to a new housingcompany. A practical example of the flexibility of the system comes as aresult For example, as part of the Government’s Modernising Agenda, wherethe Council has moved away from a committee based system to a Cabinet ofsenior elected members, each with responsibility for a portfolio ofservices. Using PS Financials, the Council is in the process of providingfinancial cost and budgetary information to each cabinet member specificallytailored for their particular portfolio.

Over the next few years, Amber Valley Borough Council will embrace fullelectronic services, including electronic purchasing, to meet theGovernment’s e-business objectives. As Fox concludes, ‘We wanted a platformthat would take us into the new millennium. With PS Financials, aided bytheir fully Microsoft compatible, web enabled solution, Amber Valley has theplatform in place to meet all future e-Government targets.’

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