Alexey Fedorenko - stock.adobe.c
Lambeth Council has been modernising its business applications environment over the past few years, against the background of cost pressure, Covid, and now the rising cost of living crisis.
With a long history as a progressive borough, even a militant one, Lambeth has a culturally diverse population that has been economically under the cosh for many years. It has almost 330,000 inhabitants, is just over 10 square miles in size, and was known as a landing place for lambs in the Middle Ages, hence the name.
Hamant Bharadia, assistant director of finance at Lambeth Council, says it has learned to do more with less, and, in relation to IT, has pursued a cloud strategy that involves Oracle and Microsoft technology.
Lambeth Council became the first UK public sector body to adopt Oracle’s suite of business applications in the cloud, in 2018.
Bharadia says, in a video on an Oracle web page: “We are a £1bn business, with 3,000 staff providing 700-800 services to our businesses, residents and wider community. Over the last 10 years, our funding has reduced by 50%, about £250m. But the demand for our services has not changed and has become more complex.
“The reasons for the move to the cloud were to have a simpler and easier solution, to have nimble, anywhere, anytime access. That is critical for us.”
Lambeth has a long-standing relationship with Oracle, and was one of six London councils in a multi-year Oracle shared services partnership that started in 2012, and ran until March 2018.
Bharadia tells Computer Weekly that when it was looking, in 2017, at moving its applications to the cloud, Oracle came out ahead of SAP in terms of breadth and depth of functionality, especially in relation to financials, while Workday was still in its infancy at that time. There was also continuity in respect of the previous joint customer relationship with the other London councils, namely Barking and Dagenham, Brent, Lewisham, Havering and Croydon.
“The reasons for the move to the cloud were to have a simpler and easier solution, to have nimble, anywhere, anytime access. That is critical for us”
Hamant Bharadia, Lambeth Council
Bharadia has worked for the council for 32 years, and recalls having the ICL system, Lafis (Local Authority Financial Information System), as well as the shared Oracle partnership. “That [the latter] had its challenges – getting everybody to agree to the right kind of format, specifications, processes. We managed it, but it came to end of life.
“At that point, we’d already committed, as an organisation, that our future lay in the cloud primarily. We couldn’t justify occupying central London property to store databases. And then the other half about the cloud was about flexibility of working.”
The intention was to reduce the council’s property estate and get staff working flexibly, with a view that “data can be accessible from anywhere”.
The move to cloud
It started its cloud migration, in 2015-2016, with a move to Microsoft Office 365. All post comes into a processing centre outside London, where it is scanned and delivered to council workers’ mailboxes digitally. “We’re trying to reduce paper as much as possible, on the basis that making as much information as possible online, available for analytics and decision making, is the way forward,” says Bharadia.
“We started looking at our options in 2017. We knew we wanted cloud. In 2017, there wasn’t much ERP [enterprise resource planning] in the cloud space. Oracle, with some of their products, but not with everything. Oracle Financials, yes, and they’d made good progress on bits of HR.”
Oracle came out ahead of SAP in terms of breadth and depth of functionality, he says, while Workday was still perceived to be less mature. However, even with Oracle, payroll was not yet there in the cloud, so it was the last module to be implemented, in May 2018, while everything else went live in March of that year.
Financial forecasting has improved for the council by virtue of the Oracle cloud applications for that. Previously, Bharadia says it was a scenario of “budget forecasting done on Excel spreadsheets, with lots of files being shuffled around the organisation, lots of meetings between accountants and budget holders”. The aim was for “budget holders to have sight of their budgets more routinely, and to be able to do their own forecasts so that they have control”.
The self-service model the council has moved to has developed from around 20-30% of budget holders routinely updating their forecasts to more like 70%. The finance team, of around 120 accountants, is now liberated, he says, to engage sooner with budget holders, playing a more advisory role with respect to activities like procurement.
In the HR function, with more self-service capabilities, the council has seen a 55% improvement in appraisal and performance reporting, allowing the HR team to allocate fewer resources to share a greater workload.
In the area of supply chain, the council has used the Oracle cloud Enterprise Performance Management (EPM) product to streamline its suppliers, reducing the number of these by 19%.
One area that is still evolving is recruitment. It had struggled with Oracle’s legacy Taleo product and is now moving to Oracle Recruiting, which is part of the supplier’s Oracle Cloud HCM service. “We were experiencing a lot of incomplete applications, with people giving up halfway through. So, we were missing candidates,” says Bharadia. “From what we have seen, Oracle Recruiting cloud is a lot more user friendly.”
Data analytics at Lambeth
Putting together the Oracle implementation with its Microsoft estate, the council is aiming at a new vista of using data more effectively to serve its residents. Part of that has involved building a small data science team, which has been working on activities such as identifying people especially vulnerable to Covid-19, socially and economically, as well as medically. Now, in a similar vein, it is identifying people especially vulnerable to the rising cost of living crisis.
Hamant Bharadia, Lambeth Council
“The next piece we’re working on is data,” says Bharadia. “We’ve got all this data in Oracle systems, we’ve got a housing system that has data, and we have a social care system that has data. So, one of the things we’re now exploring is better use of data.
“We now have a data analytics team internally, that’s looking at those connections. They are using [Microsoft] PowerBI and other cloud-based products to bring together different datasets to target our services better.”
This team has existed for around two years. They could have done this kind of work before, but it would, he says, have taken a lot longer.
Another legacy of the Covid period is the council will not return to previous levels of office occupancy. “What we’re saying to staff and managers is come into our office buildings if you’re going to be collaborating, not as a matter of routine just for the sake of doing your day job.”
It is working to a ratio of six office desks for 10 people, and Bharadia says it might end up with more collaborative spaces rather than individual desks.
It is also freeing up office space for use by local businesses. “One of our buildings is entirely based on that model, for new and emerging businesses in the community,” he adds. “We also delivered lockdown support without taking on lots of extra staff. So, we were doing the vaccination centres, the food hubs, the additional support to our residents during the period, through a combination of remote working and some mobile working, where people were just out there in vans delivering things, getting stuff done.
“So, it is possible to have that hybrid model of working. That’s not to say it’s perfect. In either model, you are going to get some people who are not 100% contributing. But you get that currently anyway,” says Bharadia.