With many staff out in the field, local authorities are at the forefront of the move to mobile IT. And for the technology to pay off, staff must understand that old ways of working are gone for good. Lindsay Clark reports.
The attraction of mobile technologies to government agencies is compelling. Wireless devices enable a huge range of public sector employees engaged in work such as social care, policing and environmental health to combine working in the field with compiling information back in the office.
Social workers, for example, will typically drive to visit clients, make notes on paper about each meeting and then type up the notes on a computer once back in the office.
The advent of wireless data networks, lighter and cheaper laptops and mobile devices such as the Blackberry, could allow social workers to compile more information while they are with their clients and spend less time driving to and from the office.
Using mobile technology in this way, among thousands of workers, offers the government a massive efficiency saving while improving services. It could be a big winner in the battle for the Gershon targets, which expect every public sector body to make a 2.5% efficiency gain by 2008.
Ian Laughton, head of e-government at Cambridgeshire County Council, says the Gershon Report specifically mentions mobile computing as a means of giving public sector employees more productive time.
Laughton is also director of Nomad, a national project established by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to investigate how mobile technology can be used in local government. It also passes on advice to other councils.
Nomad is currently putting together an analysis of savings through new working practices enabled by mobile technology. "When chief executives see you can save £1m, you will get their attention," says Laughton.
The first step in mobile computing for councils is to allow employees to work more flexibly; either from home or while moving between different offices, according to Laughton. The second is to target high-volume activities that require council workers to be out and about.
For example, Peterborough Council has reorganised its council house repair services around mobile technology. Maintenance workers can have their schedules updated continuously by a centralised contact centre, which takes calls from council house tenants. Savings come from maintenance staff needing to visit base fewer times and fewer jobs needing a second visit. However, Laughton warns that such savings can only come with a lot of business process re-engineering.
The technology is available for such applications, although there is some work to do when integrating it and connecting to existing back office systems. Laughton says suppliers of back office systems should work together towards open standards to allow integration with mobile technology, rather than trying to force proprietary technology on users, which could be a problem.
However, councils can also have a tendency to develop overly complex systems, says Andrew Watson, business development director of Anite Mobile, which has worked with many councils on mobile systems.
A lot of the gains from mobile working can be made from supplying broadband to employees' homes and allowing them to upload information there at the end of the day, without returning to the office. Watson says, "One of the issues with mobile working is that people associate it with the mobile phone and assume it should be always on."
Always-on connections, such as 3G, can be expensive and unreliable, causing users to revert back to paper. Most of the gains can come from more straightforward and cheaper technologies, he says.
However, the biggest challenge for mobile working projects is not technical. "The most challenging thing for these projects is the cultural shift," says Laughton. "You have got to get key workers to understand this is going to be a different way of doing their job. It is no good if key workers still believe they need a bit of paper to do their jobs."
To overcome cultural barriers to introducing new ways of working through mobile technology, project managers must involve end- users from the start as they develop new business processes and design a user interface that represents those processes in an intuitive way.
Laughton says, "In the work that Nomad did, led by Cumbria County Council, we learned that initially social workers could be sceptical of anything other than quill pens because their experience with office IT had not been positive. A lot of work had to be done explaining the benefits. But once they got the forms on the tablet PCs, the work done on the business processes paid off and it was a really intuitive system to use. At the end of the pilot, they did not want to give the equipment back."
Nomad has already proved popular with local authorities; around 1,200 have contacted the project to learn from its experiences.
Although security is a concern as some very sensitive personal data may be transmitted through the air, these risks can be managed, says Laughton. Mobile devices can be locked, the communication channel encrypted and, in the case of social care documents, they can be signed by both the social worker and the client and sealed electronically.
However, not all applications require such measures. "I think IT departments need to be subtle about security requirements. You do not need the same measure for social care records as for fixing a dead street lamp," says Laughton.
Cambridge County Council is now taking over leadership of the Nomad project and is in discussion with suppliers over sponsorship so that it becomes self-funding.
Local government and the police are leading the way in the public sector when it comes to using mobile technology, according to Ovum analyst Elsa Lion.
More than 100,000 police staff are using Airwave, the voice and data network that has replaced the outdated analogue police radios. Airwave enables mobile data applications, and some forces have already begun using the network to allow officers on the beat to scrutinise databases of known criminals.
Health care could also benefit from mobile technology, particularly in large hospitals where doctors could use laptops to connect to patient records via wireless networks. "However, the IT department needs to tread carefully. Doctors can be untouchable in hospitals, so you must overcome barriers by convincing the end-user that this is not just for management, but to help them do their job," says Lion.
Nuneaton's George Eliot Hospital Trust has started doing just that. It has distributed tablet PCs to 20 of its clinicians, including consultants doing ward rounds. The deployment, which has been paid for by Intel as part of a mobile pilot project for the £6.2bn Connecting for Health national IT modernisation programme, enables clinicians to access the hospital's proprietary pathology and radiology applications.
Software supplier Indigo 4 adapted the applications so they would work on thin client devices. Shaun Mountford, the hospital's deputy chief executive, believes it has cut about four hours from each clinician's working week.
Yet in central government barriers can be more intractable, says Lion. Although the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and HM Revenue and Customs could benefit from employees being able to interact with central systems while on the move, management is slow to change. "It needs strong leadership. Management needs to take the initiative and free up the funds to invest in the technology. The more central the function, the more difficult it is," she says.
In which case, despite earning a reputation for poor technology delivery, it is local government that is leading the way in the adoption of mobile technology in the public sector.
Nomad projects that have delivered benefits
The improvements witnessed by Project Nomad and the "transformation" concept:
- Efficiency savings of up to 47% were delivered through a change of process, places and technology demonstrated by the Electronic Financial Assessments project led by Cumbria County Council.
- Successful cross-agency working and information sharing capabilities have increased the ability of service providers to respond to the needs of more citizens in a real time environment as shown in the Single Assessments project led by Cambridgeshire County Council.
- Local authority members have the ability to eliminate the time delay in reporting citizen issues by having access to mobile technology and a new reporting process, as successfully demonstrated by the Citizen to Councillor Interactions live project led by Sheffield City Council.
Case study: Havering uses Mobile Social Care software and tablet PCs
In 2004, Havering Council launched an upgrade to its social care and housing systems as part of a joint project designed to provide a more efficient and cohesive service to clients.
The council's existing social care system was ageing and ill equipped to handle new legislation such as the Single Assessment Process and the Supporting People Initiative. Traditionally, care workers had filled out paper assessment forms while on client visits, entered only basic information into the existing system and spent large amounts of time faxing information around the borough.
To resolve this the council piloted Anite Mobile Social Care software. Seventy social workers have tablet PCs on which they input assessment information while with the client. It allows them to schedule client visits before returning to the office.
Anite Mobile Social Care also gives care workers access to corporate policies and procedures while in the client's home, which would have been impossible to carry around in paper format. Capturing digital signatures allows the care workers to validate the completed assessment forms on the spot, and if necessary forms can be printed on site.
Even though the current system is not mobile in terms of wireless connectivity, it has delivered huge benefits, says project development officer Jan Fen. "Before they would have to fill in the form on paper and then type it all back in again to the system once they were back in the office. What now takes one or two hours would once have taken three or four hours. These are real time savings."
The council is now including the local primary care trust in the scheme. It has 21 tablet PCs and is in the process of training staff.
The project team is also piloting a version of the system using wireless 3G connectivity in the tablet PCs. Once it has security approval from the IT department, the team will start piloting the new system with a select group of users.