What are the biggest challenges in the transition to the new council structures?
My instinctive answer would be people and systems. Like any transition, the emerging culture of the new organisation will ultimately be driven by a culture change merging the good bits of the merging organisations i.e. people, human resources, terms and conditions, pay, grading, reward, how many people to do what type of things.
By systems, I mean the corporate convergence of the existing systems and structure. There’s a cost base associated with all of that. There is also the transfer into local government of other aspects of the public service which, in my view, are relatively modest compared to what was proposed in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Nonetheless, they again involve people and systems.
The obvious challenges from an ICT point of view are moving from disparate legacy systems – not just in terms of the networking but also in terms of ICT. At the moment, you have almost 26 different ICT departments all with various different types of systems. Moving from that to having a single ICT system in each of the new clusters is a challenge in itself. Timing is also a challenge. 1 April is an aggressive target and many of the clusters haven’t yet gone out to procurement for those ICT systems. While it’s quite important – to ‘keep the lights on’ in the new organisations – it is also vital that the decisions made do not make the subsequent transformation difficult.
What’s important is ensuring that we have open systems, a network foundation and collaborative systems that really help transform the way that councils and people within organisations are able to interact going forward.
While there are clear synergies in moving from 26 to 11, there are also potentially greater synergies in the 11 looking at how they share services. How they can increase collaboration and learn best practice from each other? That brings its own challenges. How do you get the new 11 councils to work together for the common good? How do you potentially look at procurement so that it maximises efficiency? Essentially, how do you ensure that the 11 new organisations don’t go and do 11 completely different things which will ultimately hamper transformation in the long term?
We have an idea of what we want the council to be at but, at this minute in time, there is no really clear roadmap on how to blend two distinct different cultures into one that is shared going forward.
The systems and policy side is obviously a practical thing that has to be done for 1 April but the other issue is capacity within the organisations. That will be different for all 11 councils but as we look across each organisation, there’s a real issue that we might end up with capacity gaps that sit for quite a while because we have to check whether anyone wants to leave the legacy organisation and then bring new people in to cope with the additional powers and the new expectations on councils. That’s quite a long, protracted process and the danger is that those powers are not really taken up and exploited for quite a considerable amount of time.
There’s a fundamental question about the purpose of local government and the tension between locality and being seen as a business for the sector. The governance in the sector has been difficult. Twenty-six and now 11 different businesses in the business doing the same thing isn’t the way the private sector would do it, some form of enhanced shared provision needs to be explored. The difficulty in getting decisions made on a consensual way forward is a problem and will continue to be a problem.
There is a high level business model about how this can be beneficial to the local government sector. Why has that not been attractive? Does it not continue to be understood by the people who are involved in it? Has that not been a compelling driver for change and transformation?
Councils do see themselves as good local employers. You might come out with the same model but the question has to be asked: “What is good for the rate-payers? Is it by employing people or by delivering a high standard of services as effectively as you can?”
Not just in local government but in general, we come across a fear of some of the technology propositions that we have. While we are offering managed services and efficiencies, there’s a fear that that will lead to redundancies in IT departments.
Fundamentally what is required is a change in what those departments are there for. The council should be looking at better ways to transform the citizen experience and they’re better able to do that if they’re freed up from worrying about keeping the lights on and getting the basic networking done. Using managed services for infrastructure actually leads to freeing up those same people to add more value to the organisation and ultimately drive better citizen experience. That message hasn’t quite got across and it’s a challenge to articulate how you can transform government and get it right.
How can local councils better integrate with central departments and agencies?
I would add a note of caution around the idea that there should be a homogenous, clinical link between regional government – the Assembly – and 11 local government bodies. If you look at the current budget consultation, the Northern Ireland Assembly is required to save £876 million. That is actually the total expenditure of local government.
That is relevant because we should not be continually looking to central, or regional, government as the answer to efficiency. One of the opportunities for the new local authorities is to look at what we can do collectively, together – things such as the planning portal. Having said that, we don’t need to take a single entity approach on everything. Regional government also needs to make efficiencies also. The financial deficit of the Assembly is 48 per cent of what it earns. In local government, our deficit is 2 per cent – that is a real practicality for any integration between local and central government.
There are also a number of legislative opportunities such as the Local Government Act which allows for a formal partnership between central and local government. That body will look to influence policies and to formally and professionally influence now we spend the £16 billion across the public sector in Northern Ireland.
As regards integration of services, for me it is more about partnership and how we work together. There needs to be clear lines between local and central government. Sometimes central government comes in to deliver something locally which might have been better delivered by the council.
In many cases, the aspirations of central government could be delivered through local government in a partnership approach with local government – although that will be different for each local government areas. The needs of Strabane are very much different from North Down. Often central government coming in and delivering services locally can cause confusion not just within local government but with the public trying to access these services.
Essentially, we are all in the public service and many of the things we do could be done on common platforms. Many local councils have been migrating onto Network NI and that should be built on. How can we exploit other common platforms around things we all need to do, such as payroll and accounts payable? Why don’t we take an 80:20 approach and agree what is the 20 per cent of services that need to be delivered locally – local government is essentially about delivering what people in a certain place want. But 80 per cent must be the same and why can’t we share that?
I think also the community planning approach is going to mean much more integration in terms of thought and purpose across the public sector, both centrally and within local government.
Is there one area councils should focus on in the requirement for greater collaboration? Have you seen any good examples of collaboration that local government can benefit from?
In a previous role I dealt with a number of local authorities in England: Yorkshire and Humber, West Midlands, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire. Although larger geographies than Northern Ireland, they came together to have a single public services network. They would procure services from industry and then share them across up to 150 organisations within these areas. The resulting synergies and savings were immense. In Northern Ireland, there is an opportunity to do something transformational if we can get the organisations to align. How do we get the new organisations to think in that sort of way?
The most obvious is the telephone system. We are all now on Network NI and why don’t we have a common telephone system across all the public sector? The difficulty often cited is around different contract dates but there could be a phased programme of moving people onto a new system as the contracts run out.
Local government is being given the responsibility for the Regional Start initiative. We will be working with local businesses to deliver the programme, as will the other 10 councils. Coming from a private sector background, my fear is that it may not be clear who businesses should engage with and they will therefore disengage. At present, they deal with one body (Invest NI) which has one advertising campaign, one phone number and one website. If all 11 councils go off and do their own thing, this may lead to overspend because of duplication. There will also be confusion with 11 different approaches and marketing campaigns. My worry is that we inherit the programme from Invest NI and that it becomes 11 disparate programmes.
The word is transformation, whereas a lot of the activity at the moment is about transition. On a positive note, there is collaboration developing between the new councils and the chief executives- designate and bluntly I say: “They get it.” They understand the importance of driving out efficiencies with such an approach. It is not a lack of understanding, and the transformation will come after the transition on 1 April 2015.
There is a case to be made essentially for a business service organisation, a shared services entity. I’m not sure who should make the case as there are issues around credibility and integrity. It does not need all 11 councils at the start. Four or five collaborate and once the others see the benefits they will then join.
There are examples of collaboration such as the welfare of animals. In 2011, DARD transferred animal welfare (worth about £1 million) to local councils. Other areas of collaboration include the provision of legal services, insurance, security services and the management of community buildings. It is not as if we are starting at year zero as some of this work is already going on.
The principle is right. In terms of procurement, particularly with larger items, there is no reason why they should not be centrally procured. It makes perfect sense.
What use is being made of ICT to better deliver services to rate-payers?
Looking at the industry trend of ‘big data’ and the move towards the knowledge economy, there are no better organisations to maximise the opportunity than those in local government with deep information on citizens from their area. If that data is stored and analysed in the appropriate way, it offers a significant opportunity to deeply understand what customers want and not just improve existing services but also to offer additional services to citizens. As regards the interaction between citizens and local government, people now expect that to be digital and to be able to go online and get the information they want. When they make a call, they expect to be transferred to the appropriate person with the right information. It is really about insight which leads to improved interaction. The technology enables the relevant information to be accessed by those interacting with the citizen. Network NI is a great example of shared services and offers a backbone to drive such information flows.
One of the challenges we had in Antrim was the telephone system and how we dealt with incoming calls to the council. We decided on a CRM approach which entailed an upfront investment and training of staff. Traditionally, the receptionist role is one of the lowest paid positions in organisations which misses the point that it is the first impression of the organisation.
We looked at what the supermarkets were doing with customer data and thought we could take a similar approach. For example, when someone uses one of our leisure facilities should we be marketing something from the arts side of our services? And how should we be using that data to improve services?
It is a huge opportunity. Private industry took a long time to get into analytics and it is a relatively new phenomenon over the last ten years. By analysing data, patterns emerge which help improve services.
There are two aspects. The first is the customer side and we haven’t really tapped into how we interact with our customers and stakeholders. We try and do everything with one website, which doesn’t really work. We need to segregate that out and point people in the right direction depending on what service they want to access. Rate-payers have different needs from visitors to the area. The second aspect is how we use ICT internally. We have the merger of the council areas and by using ICT it will cut down the amount of travel between the various locations within the new council areas. By using video-conferencing we don’t all have to travel, which will also reduce costs.
With regards internal ICT services, I have been involved in a number of mergers over the years in England. Indeed, 57 organisations merging into one over a period of ten years.
One of the key changes is around unified communications, which only reaps a benefit if it is accompanied by a behavioural change, particularly from senior management i.e. you only travel to a face-to-face meeting if it is really essential, otherwise you use video-conferencing. It also transformed the way we organised departments.
Rather than having everyone tied to a desk with land lines and a desktop PC, it can facilitate a more flexible way of working. You don’t have a dedicated desk and you can go to a shared services area to log onto services. It is not just more efficient, it also leads to better employee satisfaction.
ICT is a means to an end. As long as ICT platforms are cost-effective, innovative, contemporary and accessible, they have to contribute something. In local government, we have to be careful that such systems do not take the face, or the local, out of government, especially if the person is not IT-literate or is someone of limited means. They are going to require a local face to co-ordinate local services. It is all about delivering services to people locally.
Is there the potential for sharing services across local government?
I think the focus is very much on integration and the alignment of the different functions. Transformation will come later.
One of the important things to be considered in the decision-making within the clusters in the transition is that the ICT decisions are cognisant that what is needed are the right platforms and the right network to allow collaboration and to enable that transformation in the future. It would be a shame if short-term decisions were made today that actually meant there was a significantly greater spend in the future. If we get the right decisions today, then transformation becomes much easier.
There is no doubt there is some recognition, particularly amongst the new CEOs, that we will have to share services going forward. That might be smaller collaborations of between three or four councils and some will be between all 11 councils. I agree with Matt. There is a danger we make short-term decisions – as it is prudent to get things done – instead of looking at the longer term implications for future integration.
There is some guidance in the Gartner report of a couple of years ago. There are some guiding principles to minimise risk.
Part of the context is that the public sector has not always been that successful in implementing ICT projects. I do not doubt that in the longer term, these collaborations will stack up in terms of business cases.
There is certainly a need for some collaboration in my own area of economic development. A job in Dungiven is in the Causeway Coast area but they will come and spend in the city. We should be collaborating and not competing in areas where it makes sense.
Collaboration has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. How it is done is going to be the key thing and that has yet to be bottomed out. There are also numerous examples such as the Scottish Improvement Service where there are no formal structures but an expertise bank. Other areas such as legal services, economic development and fleet management are currently being looked at by the 11 CEOs and that is exciting.
What one area should senior managers in local government focus on to ensure the smooth transition to the new structures?
Ensuring that affordable high quality services are delivered seamlessly after day one will be the priority. It has got to be the priority. The customer is the king or the queen and I’m absolutely sure that the focus at the moment is on ensuring that it is case whether one is a senior manager or a senior political leader or a Chief Executive.
In a survey before the last local elections, 7,000 out of 8,000 people said that the number one priority should be the local economy. Councils can unlock local economies. They need the means to do that which is why we’re providing them with 22 initiatives by financial support bodies that don’t have to raise the rates – and there’s no point in raising the rates if people can’t afford to pay them. That’s about transformation but at the moment the focus has to be on ensuring high quality affordable services.
Ultimately, the citizen has to be front and centre in all decisions that are made. Those decision-makers have to bear in mind that any decision taken does not detriment any future transformation opportunities going forward. I think that’s relatively easy to do in terms of following some of the ICT guidelines that are already there but again it would be a shame if short-term decisions were made that would hamper future transformation.
My concern is how we bring our people with us in the aspirational culture change that we talked about right at the start and on the journey that we will be on. Delivering the service is what we do and we have to do that. That’s been fundamental and quite clear in our case all the way through this but it affects every individual differently. Some individuals are quite comfortable and don’t mind. Others are extremely nervous about what’s coming. How we ensure how that is all smoothly transitioned into the new council is important.
It’s all about citizens and service users. One of the things we were looking at around four years ago was whether this could happen without people noticing.
It’s about business continuity and that’s where the focus is going to be, particularly for people who are employed and provide services or supplies. They’ll stop making a contribution if they’re not being paid.
The focus is short-term and really getting over the line. And this transition is not going to be perfect. There are going to be problems and I think we’ve got to be prepared for some sort of contingency arrangements if something doesn’t work in the way that it should have done.
Matt is Sales Director at eircom Business Solutions NI. A graduate in philosophy from Queen’s University Belfast, Matt went on to build a 19-year management career in the ICT industry having worked across sales, operations and product development in Cable London and Telewest in consumer and business-to-business telecoms. Prior to joining eircom, Matt headed up Virgin Media Business’s UK product, proposition and pricing departments.
Stephen joined Derry City Council in May 2013 as the Strategic Director for Development with responsibilities for economic development, tourism, events and marketing, leisure, heritage and community services. He formerly worked for the Londonderry Port and Harbour Commissioners and Desmond and Sons Ltd. Stephen is a qualified management accountant and chartered director. He is married with two children and enjoys several sports, including badminton and football.
Derek has been Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) since April 2011. Derek is responsible for advising and supporting NILGA political leaders, the Executive and 157 elected members, taking forward policy and legislation as the representative body of the 26 councils. This includes negotiations with central government departments and agencies regarding local government reform.
David has been Chief Executive of Antrim Borough Council since 2004 and has had experience of a range of service responsibilities during his career. His recent regional interests have been largely associated with organisational governance and the broader reform agenda. He chairs the planning working group within the transfer of functions programme and was also involved in the broader improvement, collaboration and efficiency programme.