Smarter state, smarter service desk

John Duffy says the forthcoming spending review will mean public sector bodies should review the efficiency of their service desks.

On 25 November chancellor George Osborne will announce the government’s four-year plan to cut public spending by £20bn. This will have consequences for many government departments and councils and place them under unprecedented pressure to establish how they can improve efficiencies and cut costs. Moreover, it is against this backdrop that Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently gave his “smarter state” speech.

According to Cameron, the solution to achieving these cost-cutting measures, is by focusing on three core principles: reform, devolution and efficiency. His view is that by following this approach, UK government can, “deliver [a] better, more progressive government that will meet the challenge of living within our means and at the same time help us extend opportunity to all.”

Learning from the private sector

However, what does this actually mean from an efficiency perspective? If we look at his speech, Cameron says that the public sector needs to take its learnings from the private sector; saying, “Businesses are always looking at ways to streamline their functions so they can become more effective. I would argue it’s an imperative – a moral imperative – for government to do the same. When money is tight, it’s simply unforgiveable to waste taxpayers’ money.”

Again, how does this translate within the public sector and how should we interpret this from a technology perspective?   There are a number of public sector areas that can be improved, but one area that private sector organisations are focusing on improving is how they deal with incident management across their service desks.  With that in mind, what can public sector teams learn from the private sector in their communications approaches to managing IT incidents?

First five minutes…

The first five minutes are critical and the best way to solve problems efficiently is through automating communication with teams that are required to solve problems. Although this might seem obvious, how a government department – or private company – communicates with its employees, customers or partners during the first few minutes of a severe IT incident is vital. Speed is of the essence.

Take an IT outage within a large IT estate at a bank for example: an IT outage that lasts only a few minutes can have severe negative consequences on customer experience and brand reputation. In today’s consumer-driven society, the same applies to the public sector, especially when its people’s taxes that are paying for services.

To illustrate the severity of such situations, a recent survey of more than 300 IT professionals by Dimensional Research reveals that finding the right person to start to restore a service takes at least 15 minutes and far more time to fully restore. So, while IT looks for the right individual, the organisation or department suffers.  However, problem resolution doesn’t have to be this slow or arduous.

Major service desk efficiency lies in effective communication

In addition to this, during the problem resolution phase, the team that is responsible for solving the problem is often the IT service desk. Typically, large IT service desks can receive around 3000 – 5000 emails a day with alerts to problems across an IT estate. These often comprise emails from users, software, machines, and connected devices. Once these alerts come into the service desk they need to be triaged to establish the work required to resolve these issues.

This takes time, and while many private and public sector organisations move back towards using service desks – and software – to help improve efficiency, more needs to be done to handle communication to the people required to resolve the problems. Further significant efficiency gains stand to be made here. For example, prior to using new software, it might have taken a team roughly a minimum of two hours to solve a problem; however through using this type of software the time can be reduced to approximately 30 minutes.

Although this is a major time saving, there is more value to be gained through using intelligent communication systems that enable service desks to divide their work among the most qualified, appropriate and available staff and communicate about the job at hand. This approach has the capability to reduce the time from two hours to two minutes. This is where the new value lies.

The magic number is four

Aside from using software to automate these processes, here are four ways private sector businesses are dealing with IT downtime, which might provide a different perspective on IT incident management:

  • Implement a major incident plan: As we’ve explained, finding a major incident manager to rectify critical issues can take 20 minutes, but it really shouldn’t take more than one to two.  By having the contact information for incident resolvers automated into your processes and for those you can’t automate, you can implement a full process that everyone knows and follows.
  • Let an incident manager handle it: Events change very quickly during an incident and every minute counts. Without a trained, experienced and level-headed professional making the key decisions, the incident resolution team can act like headless chickens. The leader is able to cherry-pick the right people to resolve any issues quickly.
  • Assemble a resolution team using the right tools: Assembling a team with a spreadsheet or instant messenger can take at least an hour.  This isn’t the best use of time and can easily be automated through intelligent communication systems. These systems can automatically target and alert the right person needed to produce a resolution and rectify the issue or disruption. If that person doesn’t answer their phone or message, the system will automate escalation to another person with the required skills to resolve the issue.
  • Be transparent: If everyone is clear with their communications, the major incident manager can designate someone other than resolvers to proactively communicate what has happened and outline the next steps to citizens/taxpayers, partners, marketing and public relations teams. The distraction of having to provide updates to customers while working to restore service can often lead to longer delays and errors. Communication transparency allows resolvers to focus on the task to get the business up and running as soon as possible.

Keeping a major IT incident quiet isn’t possible anymore – and everyone finds out. Missing service-level agreements (SLA) sucks – no one wins. Be intelligent with your communication software and your communication processes so when a technology-related business issue happens, your business or department is able to stay ahead of the game.

The road towards a smarter state

The road towards a smarter state doesn’t have to be complicated. When The prime minister concluded his smarter state speech he said: “It’s not just about resources: it’s about results. And that’s what you can trust this Conservative majority government to deliver – for you, for your family and for working people across the length and breadth of our land.”

Therefore, if public sector organisations plan on delivering efficiency savings, cutting costs and meeting the targets set out for them, then it stands to reason that it would be worthwhile firstly exploring how to improve the efficiency of the service desk and automating communication with people responsible for solving problems.

When you consider that the time it takes to resolve an IT incident can be reduced from two hours to two minutes, surely it makes practical sense to initially focus on how to improve efficiency across the service desk through automation and intelligent communication.

John Duffy is enterprise sales manager at xMatters

Colin Marrs

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