Maintaining first-class public services at a time when budgets are being frozen or cut is a challenge.
Doing so while simultaneously increasing motivation and job satisfaction for staff sounds impossible. However, there is a solution, to be found in the new way of organising public services, called shared services.
The shared service model is straightforward and based on a simple fact: the reason for the existence of your local council, health board or police authority is to enable the effective local delivery of front-line services.
It does not follow that there needs to be different back office or support services (for example, HR, IT or accounting departments). Instead, these support services can be "shared" between all public bodies.
The advantages of shared services are clear. Different ways of delivering services, which have arisen purely as a matter of chance, can be harmonised, helping remove the problem of the "postcode lottery". Best practice can be shared for the benefit of all.
Those who only use a service occasionally can call upon a central resource when needed. Plus, staff can be freed up to concentrate on what adds most value.
This last benefit attracts the most controversy. Is it just a way of cutting jobs? The recent consultation exercise by the Scottish National Executive has been met by a stinging rebuke from public sector trade union Unison, whose concerns are undoubtedly based on this fear.
But if duplication is eliminated, without affecting services to the taxpayer, is it a bad thing?
Sharing services does not necessarily mean that fewer staff are required overall - simply that these staff can be freed up to do other things, of greater benefit to the public.
What is often overlooked is that there are also many advantages for the staff involved. In coming together, best practice can be shared, leading to better trained and skilled staff. Public sector staff can claim to be setting the standard. Greater job satisfaction can also arise from the opportunities to work within a dedicated team, with more frequent career advancement prospects, and to be closer to the "internal customer".
Like all change, its implementation is not without challenges, such as agreeing common working practices. This involves consultation and agreement amongst people from different regions and backgrounds who may have different approaches. A change of location may also be required, although this is by no means essential. Finally, there are legal and procurement issues to be considered.
However, shared services have undoubtedly arrived. In Northern Ireland two recent projects have seen the entire HR, payroll and accountancy function of the Northern Ireland Civil Service move to a shared service model. Elsewhere in the UK, projects are on-stream or commencing. It is clear that shared services is an idea whose time has come.
John McKinlay is a partner specialising in technology at law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary
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This was first published in August 2006