Public sector: In at the cutting edge

Public sector staff are plugging into an array of new technology which has boosted efficiency and cut costs. Arif Mohamed reports

Public sector staff are plugging into an array of new technology which has boosted efficiency and cut costs. Arif Mohamed reports

Public sector IT has been transformed over the past decade as the government has poured billions of pounds into e-government.

Public sector organisations have been able to invest in cutting-edge technology such as content management, customer relationship management, IP networks and the latest hardware.

Andrea Simmons, principal consultant for public sector IT group Socitm Consulting, said there have been many good CRM implementations in the public sector, with many more to come.

But she added, “It must be a business-led implementation rather than technology-led. The business needs to understand the requirements, the benefits, the likely impacts on and changes to existing business processes.”

Wireless broadband will also be a hot technology for public service organisations in the future, said Simmons. “Making connectivity ubiquitous is becoming more and more of a reality and will empower many users to be released from the shackles of an office or desk space.”

Some organisations are seeing efficiencies from centralising their datacentres on blade servers and other newer hardware systems, but Simmons warned, “If you have all of your critical systems supported by these centralised servers and one of them goes down, it can be quite dramatic in terms of impact on the business.”

The use of mobile in public sector organisations has stood out, said Teresa Jones, senior research analyst at Butler Group. West Yorkshire Police’s use of mobile devices to record information while out and about was a very good use of mobile technology, according to Jones.

“Keeping track of what has been done, and when and with whom, is a big challenge. In the public sector, you have got to show things have followed procedures. Any kind of technology that can help to improve that and minimise the duplication of effort is good. West Yorkshire avoided duplication of data entry and made processes more accurate.”

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) helps make business process more efficient and saves IT costs because it reuses code, said Jones. Many public sector IT managers are interested in SOA, but think it is still early days, she added.

Citizen and staff self-service portals are also popular in the public sector. But Jones said, “My feeling is the vast majority of citizens are the kind of people who do not have access to the technology, and a lot of people prefer to see a person or ring directly. Potentially there is a digital divide.”

Another divide is caused by how organisations run their technology, whether in-house or outsourced to a service provider, said Simmons. There are good stories on both sides, she said, but she had a warning for public sector bodies that wanted to work in technology-sharing partnerships.

“Partnerships are all jolly fine, but at the end of the day someone needs to take responsibility, and there are legislative reasons why one party has to take a dominant and legally binding position. There are many compliance-related issues that people need to be aware of and to adhere to without it getting in the way and becoming a burden.”

However the technology is run, said Simmons, end-users need to be included in the process, particular with cutting-edge systems that require user training or business process changes.

“Because we are living in such a technological age now, there is a great presumption that everyone will be au fait with the latest technology as if by magic or by osmosis – but this is not always the case,” she said.

“User input and inclusion from the outset should be a mandatory part of any project supported by an appropriate communications and training plan.”

Case study: voice over IP at the London Borough of Hounslow

A number of public sector organisations have invested in the latest IP networks, enabling them to run voice and data traffic over the same lines and reduce their telephony and data costs.

The London Borough of Hounslow is one such organisation, which has spent the past 12 months extending its IP telephony facility to 2,500 users across 30 sites.

Gerard Gough, IT contracts manager for Hounslow, said the council had been using IP telephony for four years, with 50 users growing to 300 during that time as the council upgraded individual buildings.

However, scaling up the implementation was the challenge, and the council chose a two-phase approach, with the end of phase two now approaching.

The first phase was to put in the core IP infrastructure and systems, including IP-capable networks, Cisco Call Manager servers and IP phones.

Phase two centres on migrating 2,500 users from a legacy phone system to IP phones. Difficulties here included installing the new phones while keeping the business running, database support issues, and “the little things you tend to miss when you migrate several thousand people”, said Gough.

In terms of user satisfaction, Gough said, “We always get the odd person who does not like it – but they are in the minority. People learn to use handset facilities very quickly.”

The system has yielded huge cost savings for the council. On the telephony side, Gough managed to halve  the annual £600,000 budget for maintaining the telephone systems from one year to the next, mainly because two networks became one.

“For my return on investment, I was looking at a five-year plan, but the savings that I am achieving from operating costs have paid for my capital investments,” said Gough.

The council also added cost-effective CCTV to the IP network, and is considering having videoconferencing  in its reception areas, linking it to the back office to support the process of signing official documents.

Case study: biometric security at Lewisham Primary Care Trust

This summer, Lewisham Primary Care Trust is poised to implement one of the healthcare industry’s first biometric and single sign-on security systems (Computer Weekly, 30 May), which illustrates how technically innovative public sector health organisations have become.

The system, at a new children and young person centre that opens this August, will initially give password and biometric security to 260 staff in three agencies.

These are primary care, mental health and local authority social care agencies, and eventually 3,500 staff will be able to gain access to the system using the fingerprint technology.

Among the first users will be administration staff, clinical professionals, psychological and social care workers and support staff.

Benefits of the system include the ability to keep data separate from each department, and to track application usage to help manage licences, said James Rodd, specialist healthcare account manager at Logicalis, the systems integrator that is building the biometric systems.

 He said most users had welcomed the use of biometric security, but not all. “You get the odd comment that ‘someone will come and chop my finger off’ and you do get comments about freedom of information and human rights, but most people see the benefits outweigh the risks.”

Case study: pen and paper go digital at Leeds City Council

Leeds City Council, one of the country’s biggest local authorities, has been piloting a digital pen and paper system to automate processes for home care workers.

At the end of last year, Leeds won the 2005 Local Government IT Excellence Award for its successful Social Services Home Care pilot project based around Destiny’s Digital Pen & Paper technology.

Leeds council estimates the £366,000 Digital Pen & Paper system will save it £1.2m over the next two-and-a-half years.

The roll-out will be finished by August 2006, and extends the pilot programme – which issued 100 social services staff with digital pens – by rolling the system out to 1,600 care workers.

The council said it will be able to cut the time staff spend on paperwork and admin by using the system, as it allows users to store their handwritten notes on digital paper – a process called Anoto. These notes are then beamed back to the office using a secure GPRS mobile phone link.

The handwritten notes are converted into text and sent to the council’s social services department’s central IT system, enabling it to hold the most up-to-date social services information.

Doug Sutherland, Leeds council’s head of corporate business relationship management, said Digital Pen & Paper integrates with the council’s electronic social care records system which runs on a Siebel-based case management system.

Sutherland said the project had not posed too many challenges so far. “Not much training [is] required either – most of the training has been on the mobile phones rather than the pens themselves.”

Case study: integrated document management at Plus Housing

Public sector housing organisation Plus Housing Group is rolling out a cutting-edge housing system across its member organisations. Plus has 236 staff and is responsible for 8,850 housing units in seven local authority areas.

The IT application, Comino’s Universal Housing system, is integrated into the organisation’s telephone system, and is designed to replace paper processes.

It includes electronic document management, a transactional database, workflow and contact management.

Some housing associations within Plus have been using Universal Housing for a year. But in some cases, it took staff months to get used to it because the system challenged day-to-day working practices and processes, said Ian Cresswell, group ICT manager.

“No one expects 100% take-up of a new system straight away. It took about three to four months to really bed in, but after that the staff absolutely love it, and there was not long to wait for the long-term benefits the system brings to the organisation,” he said. 

The benefits include electronic handling of all orders, completions and invoices, and making processes swifter and more cost-effective, said Cresswell.

For example, as a task is completed, the next stage automatically kicks in, without needing to wait for the paperwork. “As we deal with several thousand contract supplier actions a week, this system has made an enormous difference.”



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