Building government IT in Northern Ireland

Paul Wickens is CEO of Enterprise Shared Services in Northern Ireland's Civil Service, which is applying private sector IT to the government.

Paul Wickens is CIO of Northern Ireland's Civil Service (NICS) and CEO of Enterprise Shared Services (ESS), a directorate within the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) that provides HR, training, finance and IT shared services across 12 government departments.

Prior to his role in NICS, Wickens worked in the private sector. "I’m an old IT man," he says. Wickens was managing director of the IT services firm Steria in Ireland.

He says: "I’ve worked for some of the big boys." It is this experience of the IT services business that Wickens has been working to deliver internally for the NICS.

Wickens recently joined the Local CIO Council within Socitm, the society for IT managers.

He says: "I am looking forward immensely to working with my public sector colleagues and supporting the Local CIO Council in its drive to transform public service delivery."

Shared services

Wickens has several roles. He is CIO at NICS, he is a deputy secretary and board member of DFP, as well as being CEO for ESS. At ESS Wickens has overseen the establishment of the shared services organisation within NICS and the delivery of shared services. In this role he leads a team of around 900 staff with an annual budget of approximately £125m.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service is made up of 12 government departments, each with a Minister. ESS provides common IT, finance and HR services to these departments.

Enterprise Shared Services is located within DFP.  Wickens says, "I run it like a business. We provide shared services to all 12 departments and agencies as well as over 40 public sector organisations in Northern Ireland. Our raison d’etre is being customer focused, high performing and innovative.

"As well as IT, finance and HR shared services we provide a wide range of learning and development programmes primarily for staff in NICS, and a business consultancy service. We also deliver citizen-facing online government services in the shape of"

Enterprise Shared Services uses a hybrid model. Infrastructure services and IT operate as captive services, while HR is a fully outsourced service.

In some ways the NICS has taken a rather different approach compared to many other organisations.  In general HR is often operated internally, while IT is outsourced.  In NICS, the decision was taken to outsource HR and run IT as a captive service.

Wickens says the rationale behind this decision was due to a number of different payroll systems, some of which were in a fragile state and with various contracts that were due for renewal. 

"The level of transformation required to deliver one HR handbook with one set of terms and conditions and a single payroll engine, required a radical solution so NICS went for a self-service Oracle HR system." The service was branded as HRConnect.

Benchmarking against Whitehall

For IT, NICS started with a blank sheet and used ITIL to create a new organisational structure, built from the ground up. He says it is benchmarked against private sector providers and is winning business.

“One of the major government agencies was paying one of the big five outsourcers a standard IT contract for PCs. We took the service onboard enabling its parent department to make a considerable saving.”

In the 2012/2013 annual report for Enterprise Shared Services, Wickens stated that during the year, the IT Assist team handled an average of 89% of calls within 15 seconds and secured new business from new customers including Belfast Metropolitan College and the NI Audit Office. He says desktops are charged at £1,200 per device per year.  In comparison the Flex outsourcing agreement in Whitehall works out at around £1,600 per PC, according to Wickens.

NICS is a big Blackberry user. In terms of BYOD (bring your own device), he says: “We are testing the concept at the Stormont Estate [home of the Northern Ireland Assembly].” 

He hopes to build safe zones and a sandboxed environment built around an enterprise design, which will create a secure environment. He adds: "There is a healthy conflict between IT and security. Apple iPads are not CESG compliant in themselves. But we have seen some of the things GCHQ is doing with iPads and wireless networks and we have tests underway with iPads."

One of the major government agencies was paying one of the big five outsourcers a standard IT contract for PCs. We took the service onboard enabling its parent department to make a considerable saving

Paul Wickens

Paul Wickens

ESS has an aggregated broadband service, Network NI, running over its own PSN (public services network), as a result of the 2007 contract with Eircom.

Wickens says Network NI provides a backbone on which everything else is built. Previously government departments had separate networks: "We now have one common network and a supporting set of processes."

Taking ESS forward, Wickens is looking at creating a shared datacentre. "We have put together a business case. Tenants will be from central government, the health sector and other public sector organisations as well as non-departmental public bodies," Wickens adds.

In the annual report for Enterprise Shared Services, he says the datacentre would save money, improve resilience, provide a platform for future shared services and potentially attract investment into Northern Ireland. 

The business case is being assessed at the moment and Wickens hopes to start the procurement process for the datacentre later this year. He says: "We want to provide our own G-Cloud. With a population of 1.7 million people, we are able to try out these things and scale easily."

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