The long run-in: Changing culture, IT and services in East Sussex and Surrey

East Sussex and Surrey councils first mooted shared services two years ago. Chief information officer Matthew Scott tells Gill Hitchcock about the hurdles the partnership had to overcome during its development, and where it is now.

Jumping the hurdles: Surrey and East Sussex have overcome culture change and IT systems for better shared services – Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Matthew Scott says Surrey and East Sussex county councils are in a “virtuous situation” where, having rethought how they provide services across the two regions, they are ready to operate with a unified back office.

As the councils’ joint chief information officer, Scott has played a major role in creating this situation through their shared services partnership Orbis, which was launched in April 2015.

With a name meaning circle in Latin, Orbis will enable the councils to share skills and knowledge, as well as allowing them to invest in technology that neither could afford alone.

And the arrangement is predicted to save between 10% and 15% – up to £8m – across both authorities by 2018. As far as the first year goes, Scott is confident he will hit, or exceed, that savings target.

“The savings are largely going to be about reducing duplication,” he says. “This time last year there were two IT departments, two CIOs and we each had own leadership team. By putting the two teams together, we’re now 50% smaller.

“But this is also about looking for opportunities to do things differently and embed new ways of working.”

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Scott, who was appointed to Orbis in February after 18 months as CIO at East Sussex, describes his current role as “both an enabler of transformation through a digital capability, as well as keeping the lights on” – he is responsible for making sure the councils have highly performing systems available to them at all times.

Once in post, he set up a single integrated IT leadership team for Surrey and East Sussex, and then a shared IT department, drawing on expertise from both councils. Although an external consultant, EY, produced the business plan, all the IT strategy and design has been led and delivered internally.

“What we did in the 12 months leading up to the launch of Orbis was to design a high-level conceptual architecture,” Scott says. “And we identified a number of tactical activities that can enable us to work as a partnership, before starting the processes of investment and technology integration.”

For instance, he says, Surrey is moving on to Microsoft Office 365, while East Sussex is already on Microsoft Technology Stack – this means the councils can share or federate across the systems, such as shared calendars on the Microsoft platform.

“We’ve got shared Wi-Fi, provided access to the intranets of both authorities, and we have shared desktop access. For example, I’ve got an East Sussex device, but I use Citrix to make it accessible to a Surrey desktop so I’m able them to go in and access their business systems,” Scott says.

“And we have put in place Microsoft Yammer as a bridge, and we’re using it as a means of establishing virtual communities across the two organisations and to share messaging.”

A work in progress

Sharing IT across two sovereign authorities has its challenges, however. Among them is information governance, and Scott had to make sure that various constraints were “worked through” so the councils can operate in an integrated way.

As part of this, he has helped establish an architecture design authority, made up of representatives from both councils, including information governance specialists.

“There are some fairly significant decisions that still need to be taken,” he says. “For example, our enterprise resource planning technology investment. This involves considerable business engagement about current need and future demand.”

It all seems promising, but the route to Orbis was long, and the programme remains very much a work in progress.

The way was paved by South East Business Services, a six-year collaboration between the two county councils on shared procurement and transactions services.

Compared to SEBS, Orbis has a much broader scope: along with information management and technology, it covers business operations, property, human resources, finance and procurement services – and full integration is not expected for another two years.

On top of this, the business plan expects Orbis to grow by attracting additional partners and customers, as well as by adding more services to its offering.

Although no date has been set for the process to conclude, Orbis is currently working through the necessary approval to integrate Brighton and Hove City Council. And Scott says Orbis is in the “early stages” of talks with local police about possible opportunities to work together.

Meanwhile, he sees huge potential for shared services across health and social care, not least in meeting the challenges thrown up by new council care models and NHS England’s requirement for every health and care system to create a Sustainability and Transformation Plan.

Rethinking IT

Big councils may have the scale and resources to meet the pressures of less money and more demand for services. But Scott thinks that for smaller authorities – and indeed some bigger players – combining forces, either as a formal shared service or an alliance, will be increasingly common.

So what advice would Scott offer to others? “I don’t think there’s a single model for a shared service, but certainly rethinking the way IT is delivered and what its value proposition is in that changing environment – I think that’s critical,” he says.

“The first step is less about technology and more about the cultural and behavioural aspects of the organisations. You need a shared vision of what the partnership could look like, and it’s important to take time to understand each other and developing trust.”

Councils should also remember these collaborations take time, as Scott testifies: “Orbis took a very long run in, but it’s only in the last six to nine months where there has been considerable pace. Even from September 2014, when the notion was announced to staff, there were at least 18 months where we were getting to know each other.

“But, to be honest, I think that most local authorities have more in common and there are differences.”

And he thinks that Orbis will future-proof Surrey and East Sussex: “We are at a point where we have unlocked ourselves, are able to take stock and reassemble so that we are providing a service which is dynamic and can respond to changing needs.” 


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