Features: January 14th, 2011

By Lee Hull.

Limiting the effect of savage budget cuts on frontline services tops the agenda of most public sector organizations. Sharing services is one of the approaches being adopted and the author outlines how the shared services scene is unfolding.

As a result of the government’s public sector spending review, the average department is looking at reducing their budget by a massive 19 per cent over the next four years. The net result of this is that greater pressures will be placed on the public sector to control costs, streamline processes and increase productivity, all without jeopardising front line services.

Joining together to share back office functions, IT systems and data, or ‘sharing services’ has been bubbling under the surface of the public sector efficiency agenda for some time. Shared services initiatives usually focus on joint procurement practises and clubbing together on technology upgrades and IT infrastructure. By doing this, councils can benefit from economies of scale. More recently, ICT has become incredibly important for ensuring that shared services projects are a success and that public services are delivered using the best and most innovative technology.

One of the first success stories of shared services is the Hampshire and Isle of Wight partnership. The two councils joined forces to unify 15 local agencies including fire, education and healthcare on a single, high-speed communications network. The network will provide connectivity to all those within the agency pool and will also enabled remote working for staff. 15,000 employees will have fast, secure access to information and be able to work from anywhere at anytime. Public services will also be greatly improved as a result of this initiative. Students, for example will have access to e-learning facilities and schools can benefit from the latest digital teaching tools.

The benefits of shared services aren’t just limited to council-wide projects though. They also do wonders for specific sectors. The NHS is one example where the sharing of information can help treat patients on time and on budget. In Lancashire, the Primary Care Trust is seeing the benefits of linking up hospital sites with dozens of health centres, clinics and surgeries, mental health and social care departments. One big healthcare system enables easy sharing of patient records, helping to make the patient experience more flexible. For example, when a patient leaves hospital and requires aftercare from their GP or physiotherapist they don’t want to be kept waiting because of delays in sending records. Other technology like the introduction of doctors’ appointments via webcam is also in the pipeline, meaning remote diagnosis will soon be a real-life option for patients who are less able to get to their local surgery.

Shared services have such a good track record that the template is being taken to new heights. A ‘Super Council’ has now been proposed in Central London. The plan will see three of the capital’s boroughs, Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and Kensington, and Chelsea unite in one of the largest projects of its kind. Once completed the joint venture will serve over 600,000 people and the super council is set to make super savings – the estimated cost-reduction figure is between £50m and £100m per year.

To pull off future grand plans like the super council, authorities will have to ensure that their information hub is supported by good communication networks and reliable technology. That’s where the Government’s new Public Sector Network (PSN) comes into its own.

The PSN will totally revolutionise the shared services model of government. The plan is to create a universal voice and data network that has the potential to link together the entire public sector. The idea goes beyond sharing technology platforms locally. Instead it will allow departments across the country to procure the best technology at prices that don’t break the bank. The core network, to which Virgin Media Business is committing its nationwide fibre-optic network, will also give public sector organisations a much needed update to their communications infrastructure.

No part of the country should be at a service disadvantage because of an inability to access the best technology. By adopting a share and share alike approach to the procurement and application of ICT, all public sector organisations can benefit from reduced costs and increased service levels. Shared services and better ICT could be the lifeline the public sector needs to stimulate its recovery.

Lee Hull is director of public sector, Virgin Media Business.