Features: September 24th, 2002

Seamless Roaming in Local Government

By Neil Hollins

Internet and mobile technology is vital to the success of Local Authorities, helping to provide joined up services to citizens, as set out in the Modernising Government Agenda.

One method of meeting the Agenda’s requirement to get all 457 local councils online by 2005 as well as driving improved process efficiency is by adopting a seamless roaming strategy. With the emergence of wireless technology, seamless roaming is now not only a real possibility for Local Authorities but is also more easily achievable.

Potential for wireless technology

Seamless roaming, through mobile and remote technologies, isn’t just a ‘nice to have,’ it can play a vital role in the way departments communicate internally, with its citizens and in the delivery of services.

Seamless roaming not only enables the IT infrastructure to be extended across the entire workforce over various handheld devices (e.g. laptops, Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones, Personal Digital Assistant’s (PDA’s), regardless of the workforce’s location, but allows access to and from ‘external’ users, i.e. citizens and suppliers. The efficiencies driven by mobile working also mean that operating costs are forced down and the savings can be passed onto the citizen.

The main business application that brings truly advantageous benefits to seamless roaming must be the ability for the remote and mobile workforce to access and update real-time information – more efficiently and faster.

Practical benefits

A social worker, for example, having visited an elderly person and assessed their needs for specialist equipment, can immediately carry out the requisition of the specialist services through a handheld device. Rather than the paper-based requisition sitting in an in-tray or in the post, the electronic system allows the requisition to be sent immediately to the authorising managers to be processed. If the line manager fails to respond to the request within four hours, the requisition is automatically posted to the next available authorising manager. The end result for the citizen is that the requisition process, previously taking two weeks, can take hours. The Local Authority is able to be more responsive and serve the citizen more efficiently.

Additionally an environmental health worker inspecting the safety of public locations such as parks, street paving or street lighting can immediately report faults through a handheld device. Rather than the repair being slowed down by administrative processes, the request can be immediately directed to the authorising manager for a quicker delegation of workforce to fix the problem. Furthermore, the environmental health worker can check repairs have been carried out by accessing data held at the department’s office. For example by typing in a reference code of a streetlight into a PDA, the remote worker can check if the repair has taken place or is still pending. If still outstanding the worker can then action the repair.

Getting the strategy right

It is mesmerising when having to consider the mechanisms necessary to support a mobile workforce with a range of devices that must be seamlessly integrated into the infrastructure. A Local Authority or department considering seamless roaming must avoid thinking that the success of the strategy is based solely on technology. Before a technological introduction is made it is vital that a seamless roaming strategy should be seen as part of a much bigger picture that includes the business processes and people.

Once the above points have been taken into consideration the Local Authority will need to consider how it will integrate the strategy across all departments. The adoption of a modular, evolutionary approach to implementation is recommended, rather than a revolutionary approach that takes too long to deliver benefits, meets yesterday’s department’s needs and runs out of that crucial project energy.

To help implement, rollout and manage a seamless roaming strategy, a Local Authority may consider partnering with an IT services company that specialises in the chosen area. The benefits of working with a partner are many. They include instant access to people who are not only experts in the technology, but also have an understanding of the processes and workforce requirements to deliver benefits to the Local Authority and ultimately its citizens. There is also the advantage that it is the responsibility of the partner to keep its employees up-to-date with the latest technologies.

This not only prevents the Local Authority from going down technological dead-ends, but also enables it to crosscheck solutions. The partner should also have relevant value-add experience, such as the ability to manage projects, well informed proposals and good accountability.

The choice of service partner is one of the most critical decisions to be made before embarking on a seamless roaming strategy. Authorities need to be careful of selecting a partner that is too tied to a particular technology solution. The partner needs to have a relationship with a number of suppliers and the ability and agility to identify what the right solutions are for individual department’s needs.

Furthermore, a Local Authority must ensure their chosen partner adheres to a number of important guidelines. The partner must develop a detailed plan prior to commencing the project, even going as far as conducting a pilot of the new design. Both partner and Local Authority can then test the system, identifying any potential problems prior to going live.

Before starting the project, both Local Authority and partner must work together to set clear objectives so responsibilities are understood at the start of the project. The objectives must be flexible so change and the natural evolution still allow the project to be successfully implemented.

Finally, the partner is there to take away any headaches. They must understand the seamless roaming strategy and recommend the correct technology. Because of the partner’s level of understanding, the Local Authority does not need to know how to implement, operate or support the seamless roaming strategy. The Local Authority must however understand how to use the technology effectively and the effects the new strategy will have on the workforce, the processes and the citizens.

It is a truly exciting time for Local Authorities. New developments within remote and mobile working technologies now hold the key to providing joined up and more efficient services to citizens. The key to successfully implementing a seamless roaming strategy is to choose the right partner who will support the Authority now and throughout the lifetime of its seamless roaming strategy.

Neil Hollins is the E-business product manager at ITNET