Features: December 2nd, 2005

Benefits First, Technology Last – The Future For Local Government

By Caroline Thomson

Over the last 10 years many high profile public sector IT projects have run into serious problems, leading to a growing culture of mistrust between public sector organisations and the private sector companies they work with. These projects, which have often set out to change the way Government conducts its business, have run into serious difficulties because they rely solely on IT to make them work.

There is no doubt that this growing mistrust is the greatest threat to the Government’s modernisation project. However, what is all the more regrettable is that many of these projects were doomed from the start. A combination of flawed planning leading to flawed solutions and eventually a failed project. Too many projects have been rushed into without sufficient time taken to analyse in detail what the outcome will be, what challenges will present themselves and what technology is needed to get to that outcome. Technology is the last part of the puzzle, a means to an end and not vice versa. Too much public money has been spent on technology without specific objectives and outcomes hardwired into the projects from the beginning.

What is evolving, however, is the view that the Holy Grail isn’t the technology, it’s rather about how the business of Government is transformed – everything from internal processes and the technologies that run and support them, to how local authorities interact with their citizens. This shift is changing the way IT is thought of and managed within Government and increasingly leading to a new movement.

A new movement

Many public sector organisations are progressively more open to the way they go about planning modernisation projects and a methodology called ‘Benefits Realisation’ is at the heart of this. Put simply, Benefits Realisation is an intensive process whereby the public sector organisation and its supplier work out in detail what benefits they want to achieve for their citizens – for example it could be better housing services or faster processing of council tax. Once these benefits are identified, and only then, does the project begin to work backwards to identify the technologies that will realise those benefits. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But to date it has often been the case with IT in local government that some kind of ‘technology solution’ has come first without a sense of the benefits that are trying to be achieved. Attitude is what is key here. A shift in mindset to one of understanding what the whole council is trying to achieve, its corporate goals if you like, rather than looking at individual process improvements in a bit part way.

A ‘Benefits Map’

Once an attitude of mind has been created to ensure Benefits Realisation, or Benefits Management is bought in, this puts benefits at the heart of the project. This is a ‘benefit map’. A map that is intrinsic to the success of the whole project as it focuses the minds of both the internal and external people involved in the project throughout its duration. In order to try and visualise it, think of a mindmap – a series of statements that connect together through their cause and effect upon one another. These statements/benefits can be broken down into different types, e.g. information management benefits; data benefits; process benefits; IT benefits; critical benefits and out of scope benefits. Among these benefits there will be priorities that can be directly measured as part of the project – others will be knock on ones. As an example, take the idea that access to the system is increased as part of an overall initiative to give citizens greater access to local service information. With this benefit, there are of course risks around security. Risks that need to be managed against the ultimate benefit they are creating.

Consultation – the right balance

Whilst consultation during and at the beginning of a benefits led project is key, there is a point at which the more you consult the more barriers to the eventual success of the project you create. Consultation must look at the ultimate beneficiaries – a judicious and selective process that assesses those audiences who will be the end beneficiaries. This process must look at both internal and external audiences – ie it could be that the finance department is the key beneficiary of faster council tax processing time, or that citizens can enjoy greater access to local information through an improved and more regularly updated web site. The benefits map is something the whole authority can and should buy into and own, but a balance in the consultation process is key

Is what you want, what you need?

As the benefits realisation methodology begins to permeate through local authorities, the challenge continues to be changing attitudes. Phrases such as ‘we need to improve our processes’ and ‘we need to save costs’ are heard and said by many people in the public and private sector alike. But these statements are meaningless. It seems that the long held belief that technology is the hero continues to thrive – the promise that technology can fix anything. As this old thinking continues to thrive it is often the case that the benefits-led approach needs to be forced upon people. What is key to the success of any benefits-led approach is a senior level sponsor who takes the time to invest in communicating throughout the authority – a real champion for this new approach and who talks about realising benefits rather than completing deliverables. The realisation of the benefit extends beyond completion of a deliverable and the benefit to the organisation is realised though people using that deliverable. It is as much a change of language as it is a change of attitude.

Why it is the benefits realisation way forward

As local authorities work in partnership to deliver e-government projects the real challenge will not be about technology and targets but about exploiting the technology in order to deliver real service improvements, real efficiencies and real savings. If efficiencies and the citizen experience are at the core of what local authorities must achieve over the next five years, then a benefits first, technology last approach is the only way forward.

Caroline Thomson is a director in the public sector business unit at Fujitsu Services.