Budget constraints and practicalities might prevent councils from making large-scale changes to their IT systems. But, says Richard Whomes, even the smallest steps to modernisation can make a big impact.
Virtualisation and business intelligence software being used to great effect Credit: Press Association Images
The current economic climate is putting the public sector under severe pressure, with many local governments stretched to breaking point by continued funding cuts and the need to care for an ageing population.
The computer systems used in local government have often been in place for decades, and have not necessarily been designed to cope with modern demands for information.
But the pressure on local government to cut costs means that councils can’t afford to simply rip out or rebuild these old systems.
Instead, they have to modernise their existing infrastructure so it’s better able to manage data and deliver real benefits in terms of both efficiency and cost reduction.
To do this, two technologies in particular – virtualisation and business intelligence software – are being used to great effect across the country to tackle specific problems – like these real-life examples listed below. Some of these may seem small, but in a climate like this, every saving counts.
Speeding up spreadsheets
In many councils, managers still rely heavily on spreadsheets for reporting and performance management, which makes it difficult to aggregate and analyse the data centrally. Instead, the use of different spreadsheets means that each manager ends up collecting, collating and reporting data separately, which is time-consuming and inefficient.
The performance managers at one council were tasked with reporting on four council groups: people, communities, resources and fire. The organisation’s performance management system was approaching the end of its licensing agreement, and didn’t cover all the relevant departments.
So the council decided to create a management dashboard that could translate large volumes of raw data into meaningful information, with easy to read reports and graphics.
This has made it possible to track, manage and communicate strategies and initiatives across all four groups, improving operational effectiveness.
One problem that frequently affects local councils is social housing tenancy fraud, where tenants sublet their social housing for a profit. In theory, the council holds all the necessary information to identify these fraudsters, but in practice things are not always straightforward.
Because of the siloed nature of many councils’ IT systems – which often remain separated by department – the data relating to one part of the council is held in a completely isolated database, without any connections to associated functions. This makes it almost impossible to trace the activities of an individual across the council’s various databases.
To tackle this, one council has used an advanced business intelligence technology, which is based on the virtualisation of data. Business intelligence software allows organisations to analyse large quantities of data quickly to identify trends and to understand patterns of behaviour. By taking data from a group of disparate systems and holding it virtually, the business intelligence analyses the council’s information in a centralised way.
When looking to address tenancy fraud, twelve different departments’ data sources were compared to identify those in social housing who had multiple addresses. From this, behavioural markers that might indicate tenancy fraud were cross-examined, leading to earlier alerts and increased efficiencies around social housing.
Among the more mundane responsibilities of local councils are tasks such as bin collection, road maintenance and general clearing up. One city council found that it regularly had to deal with abandoned shopping trolleys on roads and pavements, using valuable employee time to return them to various supermarkets. Reports of these trolleys came from individuals, community officers and even the police, but no records were kept noting the location or the supermarket from which they came.
By simply putting this information into a centralised database, the council was able to identify that 69% of trolleys found in the area came from one supermarket. A call to the regional manager of this store led to the installation of coin operated systems, which resulted in a 90% reduction in reported cases.
By recording all instances of dumped trolleys, the council was able to identify any trends and take appropriate proactive actions to address the issue.
Small changes can mean the world
In the current economic climate, it’s important to bear in mind the small changes that councils can implement in order to improve their efficiency in the face of shrinking budgets.
Improving the use of data by bringing together and analysing records from different parts of the organisation is one of the most effective ways of doing more with less.
In an ideal world, all the various systems of a council – and between councils – will be linked.
In the meantime, modernising existing IT systems is a cost-effective way of boosting efficiency, keeping costs under control and providing the best possible service to local residents.
Richard Whomes is director of sales engineering at Rocket Software