Features: November 15th, 2013

Colin Reid, CEO of the market leader in mobile working solutions for local government TotalMobile, outlines an approach to make mobile truly deliver in the public sector

Saving money and improving service levels is Job Number One on the agenda of the British public sector, three years into an austerity programme unparalleled since World War II. But as service providers strive to simultaneously meet government targets, they are often thwarted in their efforts by the mechanics needed to deliver improvements. How could technology help?

Undoubtedly, there are political and cultural obstacles to overcome. Yet as patchy progress in meeting Whitehall’s strict demands keeps on demonstrating, the fragmented nature of information flow in many British public service processes is hampering the drive to efficiency – as well as limiting the taxpayer’s ability to get full visibility into the process.

Given the call for local authorities to be more proactive in delivering a good service to the public, this situation is unsustainable. At the same time, as more front-line employees get mobile devices, the situation becomes even more complex. Vital back-office information, which typically needs to be pulled from a number of sources, has to be made available, and accessible, to many types of mobile handsets – and in a way that is integrated, secure and reliable.

In addition, it also always needs to be delivered in a way that is easy for frontline staff to use – as that’s the only way such solutions ever get quickly and widely adopted, or benefits realised.
This is easier said than done, however. Until now, most mobile-working initiatives have been driven out centrally then rolled out on a departmental basis. But, such a silo-ed approach impairs, rather than encourages, true information sharing. At the same time, providing mobile staff with a laptop and 3G card to access back-office systems is not the full solution to delivering mobility, as that’s a combination that only ever works when there is a good signal. As soon as the signal disappears or deteriorates significantly, users can’t work. Even when there is a connection, team members typically find that the systems have not been designed with their needs in mind – indeed, most mobile working solutions now available are cumbersome, complex and more of a hindrance than any real cost-saving or frontline service enhancing help.

The reality is that it’s only when local government managers examine the role of frontline employees more closely – what these users are trying to achieve, and how this might be done differently and better – that they are able to start harnessing mobile as a catalyst for the step-changes in efficiency they must now deliver.
Such plans founder if they don’t put mobile users and their needs first. So, how do we get there?

Data where the team member needs it

A growing number of local authorities have begun to recognise the need to change their approach to supporting mobile workers – and are seeing impressive results. Fife Council, the third largest local authority in Scotland, for instance, rethought its mobile working strategy to enable more service integration. This started with a mobile job management solution for its Building Services department to help plan and manage site visits. Immediate benefits included an increase in site visits and significant streamlining of associated admin, as back-office information was now automatically updated via the employee’s device while maintenance engineers were on the job. These were solid, quantifiable benefits from mobile.

Fife isn’t alone. Aberdeen City Council has seen productivity increase by 50% as a result of more joined-up thinking between teams, for example. Property repair times have halved and customer satisfaction levels rocketed to 95% because jobs for clients are being completed promptly. Some 140 mobile devices are used right across building services, by electricians, plumbers, engineers, painters and inspectors, while a common job management application means all of these individuals can acquire their jobs remotely, record time, and plan the use of tools and materials. Early indication of the completion of one job can then automatically trigger next actions, where workflow has been set to allow this.

What’s different about the way these councils are approaching mobile is that they started from the needs of the front-line staff – ensuring that each person has all of the information, and ability to update this, for each job. What underpins this? Innovative use of an ‘integration server’ – a secure, remote digital ‘filing cabinet’ available to the user throughout the working day. For example, as Sarah Royles, Commissioning and Design Consultant at Nottinghamshire County Council, which has made user acceptance a guiding principle of its rollout, says, “We run a number of workshops as we develop a solution so staff have got all they need on their devices to do their job – building the end solution based on their feedback.”

All of the relevant information for the next batch of jobs, which may have been collated from 3-5 back-office systems, is pulled together here, ready to be pushed out to the relevant user for each appointment. This means that the customer’s case history, the right forms and the specifics of the job, are all available at the user’s fingertips at the point of need – precisely what you wanted mobile to achieve in the first place, surely?

Offline continuity

What’s also really useful about this approach: if users find they are without a mobile signal, they can continue working offline, secure in the knowledge that new information will be exchanged with the server as soon as the connection resumes. Compare the standard enterprise mobile app ‘solution’ to this; in a browser-based mobile scenario, this wouldn’t be possible and productivity would stop as soon as the worker was in a no-signal spot. For Linda Robertson, Programme Manager at Fife, “Whether in a building with connectivity or out in the field, we have always taken an approach that allows us to work, whether that’s in tenant homes doing change of occupancy inspections all the way through to park inspections of playgrounds.”
“The ability for our mobile workers to work offline is essential, as parts of Notts have poor connectivity,” adds Nottinghamshire’s Royles. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the number of miles that social workers have to travel. After all, if they can’t work out in the field the benefit of mobile gets lost.”

Importantly, in this new paradigm, multiple teams are all served by the same core application, configured to their respective needs through simple adjustments to workflow rules. This makes it much easier for multiple teams to access related information, or for tasks to pass between departments as one job is completed and the action of a different specialist is required. And for areas where organisations are being called upon to work together more closely and seamlessly, this kind of development is critical to enabling inter-department collaboration.

Take the provision of care. To be effective and efficient, these services require the sharing of information between health trusts and social work departments. For most of the UK (Northern Ireland being a marked exception), such services are divided between the local authorities and health trusts – and as we know all too well, patients can fall between the cracks. An intuitive mobile solution created around the needs of the user and the patient they are serving could help close what can often be a distressing or even fatal gap in continuity of care.

Real progress in doing more with less, as local government is getting used to doing, calls for new thinking. And the bolder the move, i.e. the greater the willingness to bring down organisational barriers, the bigger the potential gains. Mobile working is an area where just such work should be going on. Mobile should be intuitive, empowering and transformational.

The danger is that if it isn’t all these things, public sector managers may simply find themselves incurring more expense without the hoped-for benefit – waste no one can afford, as we continue to balance the national books.

The author is CEO at TotalMobile .TotalMobile has been successfully developing and selling enterprise software for more than 25 years. Its TotalMobile App Platform helps organisations work smarter and become better.