Head of UK's largest transformational government project 'frustrated by slow progress'

The head of the UK's largest local authority transformational government project said he is "frustrated" by the time it is taking for visible benefits to come out of the programme.

The head of the UK's largest local authority transformational government project said he is "frustrated" by the time it is taking for visible benefits to come out of the programme.

Glyn Evans is head of Birmingham City Council's transformation programme, which aims to save taxpayers £1bn in 10 years. He has spoken of the lessons he has learnt so far.

Birmingham's transformation project is made up of nine separate programmes, each aiming to bring efficiency to a different department. Two key programmes include the Corporate Services Transformation, which aims to rebuild the council's back office, and Customer First, which aims to create a single point of contact for customers using council services.

Evans has faced several challenges in the project's first two years. He said, "Overall it has been a positive experience, but I am frustrated by the length of time it is taking to make a change in the council."

The impetus for change at Birmingham came from a survey showing just 55% of customers were satisfied with council services. "If that was in the private sector you would be replacing the management," he said.

The answer, Evans said, is the transformation programme, but it has not all been plain sailing.

The council has experienced difficulties with its SAP systems, for instance. A backlog of 10,000 unpaid invoices remained stuck in the SAP finance system six months after it went live. The council's "Approvals Day" was scheduled for 13 May, when all outstanding invoices were to be cleared. Evans said 92% of invoices are now being paid on time.

Evans blamed the problems on communication rather than software.

"Most of the issues we had with SAP were not software-related at all. They were about getting the message out, and possibly underestimating the complexity of the organisation. We were not replacing one way of doing something, but nine different ways. It adds a level of complexity."

He said an organisation the size of Birmingham was always going to have some teething problems, "I do not think any FTSE 100 company would do it any better than we did."

Another problem, he said, was maintaining the support of senior managers and politicians when challenges come, and ensuring they are aware of the time it takes to see positive differences.

"I confused communication with engagement," he said. "Sending out material is not the same as having the capacity to sit down with managers and talk to them. I am actually struggling now to generate the capacity to rectify that.

"We put a lot of effort into collecting evidence to underpin our business cases. I do not think we shared that enough with the directorates who were going to be impacted by the change." As a result, he said, employees' response to the project was "sceptical".

Evans came up against further challenges when council IT staff did not see the transformation IT projects as "career enhancing", making recruitment difficult.

Despite the issues, Birmingham's project has been successful so far, making a £9m net contribution to this year's budget.

But for Evans, this sort of change in local government is overdue. He said the public sector has not been successful in using IT as an enabler of change, and blamed a "limited understanding" of IT among senior politicians and management.

"Most senior managers in the public sector are still of the generation that grew up without IT," he said.

It is IT professionals who must provide leadership, but warned IT staff not to look to central government for inspiration.

"We have got to move away from the central government view that it is all about efficiency savings and shared services. It has got to be more than that.

"IT is the enabler, but transformational change has to be systemic. It has to address organisational structures, job roles, processes and cultures."

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