In the age of austerity, local councils have never needed to be smarter with money – and technology. A recent report by think-tank Policy Exchange claimed that £10bn could be saved nationally by the end of the next parliament if councils used technology and data in a smarter way.
One authority inspired by the study and embracing new services to save cash is Nottinghamshire County Council. The authority is facing £77m in cuts by 2018 and by rolling out a number of new services, it plans to save £8m through technology alone.
The council’s CIO, Ivor Nicholson, has been leading the roll-out from the heart of Robin Hood country. Nicholson has been at Nottinghamshire for four years, and despite beginning his career in finance, has worked in IT for about 15 years, with his previous job at Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council.
“Our prior efforts had been to modernise the ICT estate,” says Nicholson. “We really needed to put some investment to bring the platform up to date, so the frontline staff had modern desktops and the estate was secure.
“We got to a stage where we had got a good network, good kit, good levels of applications, but about a year ago we launched a new strategy to work with current political members on business transformation and what sort of return we could get.”
It hasn’t been an easy road, under the pressures of cuts.
“We are obviously in a difficult situation as a county council,” says Nicholson. “We want to protect services, but are having to really find some financial savings. Through technology, we have been looking at productivity and how over the next three years we can help the organisation.”
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The first and most substantial saving the council plans to make is rolling out tablets to its employees.
The mobilisation project will provide 1,500 social care workers with Lenovo Thinkpad tablets, running Windows 8.1, so they can work on the move. The plan is to hand out the touchscreen devices by the end of 2015 and Nicholson says this project alone will save the council £4.7m. But the first port of call was not Microsoft.
“We actually piloted with iPad and iOS devices,” he says. “When we were looking at the pilot, we were very open-minded. But it became obvious from the feedback that people wanted a more joined-up approach, seeing the same desktop when both in and away from the office.
“From a tech perspective, it was also a lot easier to support a Microsoft environment as we already had Active Directory and the total cost of ownership was much better.”
Users have all the usual applications you would expect with a Microsoft roll-out, including Exchange, Lync and SharePoint. But care workers have also been able to use a workflow tool to automate their assessments and access their case notes in a much easier and user-friendly way.
Nicholson says: “They have really got on board. It was done in tandem with social workers as a pilot, rather than imposed on them, and they have been very good at really looking at processes and how they could move from a traditional paper-based environment to tech automation.
“Being involved from the outset means we could build the solution around them. The pilot group have totally bought into it and the flexibility it provides, so they sell it to their colleagues.”
Home care services
The second strand of the council's technology drive is to install a new electronic monitoring system covering home-based care services.
Nicholson says the system will help design care packages for residents who are part of “supported independent living” – which means they are able to stay at home with a bit of help from the council, rather than be in state-run homes.
“We don’t provide services ourselves,” he says, “but we have someone who goes in to assess their needs and then we commission the service. Through the monitoring system, we can collect the work they have done and charge work done, rather than an overall commission. If they don’t complete it all, the county council can save significant money by moving away from charging on commission to actual work delivered.”
A lot of schools still use fax, courts still use paper, lots of public bodies still use paper
Ivor Nicholson, Nottinghamshire County Council
Nicholson and his team have done work in-house to ensure the portals are secure for care assessors and care work suppliers to contact each other. The new, though seemingly simple, idea is expected to yield savings of £2m a year.
Next up for the modernisation of the council is a new contract for broadband with Virgin Media Business. The local authority has set up its own Public Services Network (PSN) with Virgin, taking the pressure off running the network itself, but offering it as a service to public-sector organisations across the county and beyond.
“With Nottinghamshire having so many buildings, we have a network at the moment of 560 sites, including schools,” says Nicholson. “In the past, we have had our own private network and managed to make significant savings sharing with schools. But with technology and prices moving on, we are now able to run our private network over the Virgin network.”
The CIO says this has enabled the council to open out the service, not just to Nottinghamshire, but to the East Midlands.
“We have branded it the EMcloud and other public-sector bodies are looking into it,” says Nicholson. “The police are interested, colleagues in health – any public body could make use of it.
“Virgin is talking to a number of those bodies for when their existing arrangements end as an option. And in terms of procurement, with the upfront design done already, it will be an easy arrangement for everyone else, with big savings on time and effort.”
The authority predicts it will save about £800,000 a year after the contract begins in October 2015. The final big saving will be made through a new fax server system.
Generic software running in the council’s datacentre will help the organisation support the digital switch-over of faxing, and this alone is expected to save up to £300,000 a year.
“A lot of schools still use fax, courts still use paper, lots of public bodies still use paper,” says Nicholson. “The fax solution has been kicking around for a long time and will still be around for a considerable length of time, but at least we are going to deal with that.”
The solution means the authority will not need the same number of fax lines, will use far less paper, and, of course, fewer machines, which will bring costs down. “We operate 250 sites, so it is quite easy for things to proliferate,” says Nicholson.
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Smaller projects will also bring benefits to Nottinghamshire residents, as well as the council’s wallet. A roll-out of public Wi-Fi at 31 libraries will take place over the next six months, and the council is embracing a digital-first approach for citizens to access services online.
“I think if we look at our own digital presence, it is not where we want it to be,” says Nicholson. “Although we do have a web presence, we are not probably doing the volume of business through the web. It is the cheapest channel, compared to face-to-face and telephony, and where people can self-serve, it enables us to provide services more cheaply. But it is also a lot easier for the user who wants to be able to do things from their smartphone or tablet.”
The council will launch a new website in September to push this thinking further forward. And as well as the techies behind the scenes, councillors on the front line are praising the authority's moves.
Darren Langton, vice-chairman of the council's finance and property committee, says the authority is “leading the way” by putting technology at the heart of modern service delivery.
"Our ICT strategy is delivering a huge modernisation programme across all council services,” he says. “By investing in new technology, we are not only saving a substantial amount of money for taxpayers, we are changing the way services are provided for the better.
“The mobilisation project in particular, which has seen Nottinghamshire County Council lead the way nationally by providing our social care staff with the technology to work on the move, continues to be a big success.
“Assessments are completed faster, there's the potential for patients to be discharged from hospital sooner and staff time is put to better use, with much less time spent travelling to and from the office and waiting between appointments.”
But both Langton and his CIO realise these are just the first steps towards the council embracing technology as an organisation.
By putting technology at the heart of the way we provide services, we are making rapid progress
Ivor Nicholson, Nottinghamshire County Council
"There is still lots more to do,” says the councillor. “But by putting technology at the heart of the way we provide services, we are making rapid progress. Using technology to reduce our running costs helps relieve some of the extreme financial pressures on frontline services caused by ongoing cuts in funding by central government."
Nicholson adds: “There will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. The challenge is how we start to integrate with other services, especially health. We need to start to integrate health and social care together, so we need to work with our partners, see what they are doing and make sure we are joined up.
“There will be a cultural change as much as roll-out of devices, and we have to support people to work in a very different climate. Some of the products we want to roll out further, particularly Microsoft Lync; that is really important.”
The future focus will be on sharing more of what the council does with other parts of public sector, says Nicholson. “The biggest financial cost is around children and adult social care,” he adds. “If we are going to be able to be cost-effective and productive, it will be about how we work, share data and services, and we are going to need an emphasis around how technology will play a big part.”