Features: May 5th, 2006

The E-Efficiency Agenda

By Thus plc

The e-government deadline is now behind us and the majority of local councils have been very successful in meeting the challenge set down by The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. The aim of the e-government agenda was to improve public services through electronic delivery, and councils have responded well.  Citizens can now conduct a wide range of personal business via the web, from paying council tax to applying for planning permission.  Public libraries have also been able to improve book cataloguing and Internet access, and council employees can now procure goods and services, more easily, online.

E-government has now given way to t-government, transformational government, and a group made up from chief executives and other senior council officers is looking at ways that local government could transforms the way it delivers local service. The work of the group is based on ‘Transformational Government’, the Cabinet Office blue print for taking public services beyond eGovernment which was published in November 2005. An important part of the transformation is to deliver efficiency gains of 2.5 per cent set out in the Gershon report.

Next generation networks

It is arguable that the key to e-efficiency lies in the communication network.   This is the foundation of most electronic services.  Every time we make a call to our council or go online to use a service, it is the network that is expected to deliver.  The network is the councils’ link to its community as well as the backbone of its operations.  Without a modern and efficient communications network a local council cannot operate effectively.

Next Generation Networks (NGN), in particular, are emerging as a key way of helping councils become e-efficient. NGNs are the ‘hot’ technology of the telecommunications world.  In an NGN, data, voice and broadcast functions are brought together; known collectively as the ‘triple-play’.  In effect this means a voice network, data network and broadcast network converge and use the same fibre line. An NGN offers a variety of access methods, including Ethernet, DSL and traditional Leased Line, giving the most appropriate access for a site to allow a council to use IP for all its networking requirements.

Driving efficiency

So how exactly would replacing traditional networks with an NGN help councils meet their e-efficiency targets?  The major saving comes from the cost reduction inherent in having a single, converged network.  Instead of having to pay for three separate networks, on three separate bills with, potentially, three separate companies, all will be delivered in one reduced-cost package – embracing the very essence of efficiency.   Reduced network costs are just the beginning – an NGN is a whole new network which brings with it a whole new raft of benefits.

Local councils offer a wide variety of disparate services, so many in fact it is perhaps more reasonable to think of a series of diverse and unique organisations grouped together under the umbrella of ‘local council’.  This is very much reflected in their communications networks.  A museum has its own network, as do libraries, community centres and all other departments, with very little centralisation. The disparity of the departments is exacerbated by the administration of the various departments.  There are myriad pay roll and HR teams operating largely independently of each other. This leads to an unnecessary and expensive duplication of functions and hardware.

With an NGN, the structure of local councils becomes much more cohesive.  An NGN enables the centralisation or virtualisation of departments and offices such as call centres, council tax administration and many others.  Data can be accessed with an identical degree of speed and ease no matter where the facility or employee is based.

Glasgow City Council (GCC) became one of the first councils to switch its network to an NGN and has made significant savings as a result.  Its experience provides a clear example of how NGNs can be used within a local council to bring about those important efficiencies.

The most immediate benefit is the scalability of NGNs.  One of the key interfaces between citizens and a local council is the call centre as this is one of the most common points of contact between council and citizen.  With legacy technologies the costs involved in adding new agents to a call centre can be prohibitive, even more so if a council wishes to open a brand new centre.  The IP-based NGN THUS installed for GCC allowed for 400 extra agents to be added to its call centres without the need to invest any further capital.  As well as providing excellent services to its citizens by having more people manning more phones, GCC managed to do this without having to spend extra budget to upgrade its network.

GCC also achieved efficiencies by applying NGN technology to its HR and payroll processes. It rolled-out a SAP-based finance and HR system.  GCC’s Joint Services Delivery Team had to work closely with the SAP project team to understand its plans and the implications on the network. This system was central to GCC’s aim of focusing on front-line service and streamlining back office processes.  SAP delivered some significant efficiencies by creating a centralised service centre for financial and human resources functions instead of the various pay-roll and finance teams that were in place before.

NGNs also deliver a network flexibility that allows councils to be much more fluid with use of space.  Council employees must have a fixed telephone number and email address so that there is a clear means by which they can be contacted.  With traditional networks, communications processes were very much tied to desks.  Employees all had a physical space on which their communications tools (be it a PC or telephone) were entrenched.

Flexible working

The demands of the job mean many council employees have to be mobile.  Whether they work in healthcare, planning or health and safety they have to immerse themselves in the community they serve, and this means leaving their desks.  From the perspective of running an efficient organisation, this causes problems.  Desks are left empty and telephones unanswered.  Space – an essential commodity to any council – is left redundant.

With a modern NGN telephone network these inefficiencies are reduced.  Today an office is anywhere a broadband connection is available, be it a library, a home or even a coffee shop.  Workers who spend most of their time on the road, now have no need for a desk.  They can connect to the local council server anywhere, and a NGN ensures a business-quality download and upload speed as well as the security essential to protect sensitive data.  As voice calls are running alongside the data stream, council workers can be contacted by telephone no matter where they are.  The efficiencies are, therefore, twofold:  time is saved as calls are answered quickly and dealt with immediately, and space, which was once wasted on seldom-used desks, can be freed up and utilised more effectively.

The impetus of e-government has resulted in local councils now offering a wider range of user-friendly services that can be accessed quickly and trouble-free from homes and workplaces within the community. Electronic government is doing much more than just improving services, it makes the general running of a council’s business increasingly cost effective, and NGNs are contributing to this.  NGN’s are bringing about efficiencies by freeing up office space, speeding up and centralising communications, and allowing networking costs to be cut.

Telecoms operator THUS has six years experience in providing Next Generation

networks. THUS is working with GCC to provide a range of managed services, including technology strategy development, staff training, inventory management and project management.

For more information call Mike Plessis 0207 6084 627.