Features: October 21st, 2003

Delivering the Foundations for Joined up E-Government

By Steve Boon

Wind the clock back three years and few people would have predicted the revolution in public sector communications that is happening today. Back then, many civil servants still did not have email and Internet access, let alone the advanced network solutions being talked about now. But when the Government’s plans for e-Government were announced, everything changed. Central and local public sector bodies were charged with sharing information about citizens appropriately and securely, to deliver “more personalised” services and improve “value for money”.

Inevitably, the spotlight has fallen on internal and customer-facing communications, the foundations needed to realise these improvements, which are commonplace in the private sector. And it is the private sector that many public sector authorities have looked to for a solution.

Three years ago in the private sector, Internet Protocol (IP) networking was being heralded as the ‘killer technology’ that would radically improve the way in which companies communicated internally and externally. Since this early hype, the technology has matured into a business class service and the decision to migrate has become one of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for most companies.

IP in action

IP is a networking protocol which enables voice, data and video traffic to travel over the same network, and removes the need for separate IT and telephone infrastructures, which can sometimes be costly and inefficient.

On the most basic level, IP is ideal for saving time and money, important benefits for public sector organisations who often have limited IT resources, particularly at the local level. Instead of managing multiple networks and technology suppliers, IP reduces the job to just one network and one supplier. This allows the in-house IT team to spend more time on strategic and qualitative tasks such as user liaison and desktop support, and leaves the finance department with only a single bill to pay, simplifying account settlement processes.

Increasingly, IP is being offered as a fully managed solution by service providers, removing the network management burden almost entirely for customers.

Cost and time-saving benefits are unquestionably significant for the public sector but they don’t in themselves realise the objectives of e-Government. To understand the impact that IP will have on internal and external public sector communications, we need to examine its value-added benefits more closely.

The impact on joined-up working

IP networking overcomes the primary issues that inhibit more effective joined-up working – namely the constraints of time and distance. With IP, a local authority can, for example, seamlessly create Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that link up staff in disparate sites, allowing them to work securely online together and share information in real-time.

Take health as an example. One IP VPN might join up all the local health trusts and hospitals, another connect them to schools and other parts of the local authority, and another might connect them to relevant national organisations when necessary – from the Department for Health to doctor’s surgeries across the country.

Greater data sharing, enabled by IP VPNs, will have multiple benefits: from local agencies sharing information to help identify a child at risk, to the DVLA and UK Passport Service swapping data to help process driving license applications more efficiently.

Taking knowledge sharing to the next level, IP VPNs can be extended to offer access to the community at large. Within secure ‘intranet’ groups, this can enable community interaction on a level never before possible, bringing the public sector far closer to its public.

Exchanging citizen data in such a dynamic manner is of course only viable if that information is kept secure. The most effective IP VPN services are available with IP Security (IPSec) capabilities built-in and configured, which create a secure path between offices or other sites using robust encryption technology.

Improving data flow is not the only way that IP helps the public sector realise the e-Government vision. IP telephony also has a significant role to play.

IP telephony benefits

Despite the growth in online traffic, the telephone remains the primary medium by which citizens communicate and interact with public sector organisations. IP networks can greatly enhance the capabilities of existing voice communication facilities, particularly in call centres, by enabling more effective call routing and handling.

An IP-enabled call centre provides a fully integrated, multi-media solution. Whether the citizen’s enquiry comes in by phone, the Web or email, it is automatically routed to the most appropriate member of staff who instantly has access to an on-screen customer profile ensuring a fast, efficient, personal service.

IP telephony has several other benefits beyond the call centre world. Firstly, it is a catalyst to more effective group working, enabling ad-hoc conferences to be set up quickly and easily. Secondly, it is a major time and money saving tool compared to the traditional telephone network. The cost of calls made between offices connected to the network is reduced dramatically and the features of your telecoms system, such as extension numbers, direct lines and short codes, can be amended in seconds whenever necessary.

‘When’ not ‘if’

As e-Government demands more effective data sharing and better ‘customer’ service from central and local authorities, IP networking has truly found its calling. However, migrating from existing infrastructure to IP does not happen overnight. This is where choosing the right service provider to implement the IP network is essential.

When the Scottish Criminal Records Office decided to move to an IP network, it outsourced the entire design, installation and maintenance process to a specialist IP service provider. In fact, the entire state-of-the-art solution was tailor-made for SCRO’s new showcase building at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.

The following provides a short check list of what to look for in a supplier.

What to look for in a supplier?

  1. Are you experienced and accredited?
  2. The first question to ask is whether the service provider has the skills, experience and scale to implement the network successfully? Does it have the highest levels of vendor accreditation and specialisation? In this area, the best bet is to ask to see one of their current IP migration clients. If the service provider is reluctant that probably tells you something.

    The service provider should also be able to show strong credentials for designing and managing solutions for the public sector.

  3. Tools for the job
  4. The second issue is one of infrastructure. If the service provider is heavily reliant on third parties to deliver the solution, it will not be in full control of the quality of service it provides to its customers. Look to a supplier who can provide end to end delivery and long term support.

  5. Service is king

The final point concerns service and, in particular, the Service Level Agreement (SLA) being offered and adhered to by the supplier. Many service providers are less than forthcoming when there is a problem, or do not have the appropriate resources or manufacturer back up, and thus some still fail to offer comprehensive SLAs. Still more opt to quibble with their customers over SLA penalties.

The leading service providers offer a strong and transparent SLA and automatically settle penalties if the terms are breached.

Public sector communications have come a long way in the last three years. And IP has come a long way from its development in 1969 as the first US research network, supporting only a handful of terminals, to the mass market integrated voice, video and data protocol it is today. With its impact on information sharing, collaborative working and encouraging personal service, IP has found its perfect partner in the world of e-Government.

Steve Boon is Director of Public Sector at NTL Business.