According to the Local Government Association, councils saved £462 million between 2012 and 2015 by pooling their resources and sharing a variety of services. NHS Shared Business Services, which was set up in 2005, estimates it has contributed £224 million in savings by coordinating back office staff and other operations across the health sector.
With the aim of improving civil servants’ interactions with government back office services, the government has set out a strategy to support a Civil Service, where civil servants can seamlessly move between departments and roles, allowing the Civil Service to deploy what we need to meet the challenges of the day.
The strategy primarily focuses on driving value and efficiency for the taxpayer by moving to the latest cloud technology, promoting simpler back office processes across departments supported by automation, and meeting the needs of end users across the Civil Service, police, and the armed forces. Doing these things will enable a smarter and more flexible back office for the Civil Service.
Once it has been implemented successfully, it is hoped that the new strategy will promote competition between shared services providers in the market, driving both performance for users, and value for the taxpayer. A critical element will be making sure that service providers constantly improve their technology, ensuring that they make the most of the latest automation, and robotics. In this way the strategy will ensure that civil servants are supported effectively and efficiently while they deliver public services.
In order to deliver the new strategy a new unit, the Government Shared Services unit, has been formed within the Cabinet Office, that will collaborate with government departments. But while the advantages of shared digital services are clear and there is now clear direction from government and a new unit tasked to see it through, a number of challenges that still need to be addressed:
- How can public sector organisations break down data silos and share important information?
Data standards for information sharing have come a long way in the last few years and the arrival of multi-cloud and community cloud services provides a platform across which data can be efficiently and securely shared. The real challenges are cultural. Breaking down departmental silos has been a challenge that has defeated many previous initiatives. It is hoped that the new unit will have sufficient ministerial support to enable greater inter-departmental collaboration.
- What impact will the General Data Protection Regulation have on data sharing and shared services?
GDPR is a challenge that the government is facing on a collective basis as well as one faced by each individual department. It defines requirements for accountability, traceability and responsibility that each department should be adopting as standard under the new regulations in any case. As long as all departments are compliant and open to collaboration, GDPR should not be an inhibitor. The risk however is that all it takes is for the weakest link in the chain to break for whole thing to fall apart. It therefore requires universal compliance. This extends beyond the departments themselves to the entire supply chain of partners and service providers participating in any collaborative venture.
- How can the public organisations overcome interoperability issues between different computer systems?
Again the improvement in data standards and integration tools has greatly enhanced what is achievable. In addition, cloud as a platform and containers as the vehicles for delivering micro services provides a clear path for service development and integration. And while the challenge of integrating legacy systems will always remain, the rapid evolution of tools is making this less of an issue all the time. Indeed, whereas containers might once have been Linux only, there are now tools for containerising everything from Microsoft applications to mainframe ones, and there are also rapid developments in API integration that mean that most things are now possible. Indeed, a multi-cloud or community cloud with some form of colocation for applications that cannot yet be moved to the cloud, would provide an integrated platform for almost all workloads.
As ever though there is a gap between theory and reality. A previous Cabinet Office-led programme to transfer the back-office functions of most departments and agencies to two independent shared services centres was found to have failed to achieve its anticipated savings targets because of delays and lack of buy-in, according to a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report. Hopefully lessons will have been learned and the new Government Shared Services unit will harness the latest tools, technologies and standards and will focus on smaller projects that can be managed on a more agile basis and aligned with cloud-based or even containerised micro-services.
As the NAO report found, a major cultural challenge delaying the implementation of shared services is the reluctance that many organisations have of jumping into bed with an enterprise that they themselves do not control. It is especially evident for smaller organisations that can fear a total loss of control. Such cultural barriers are not easy to overcome, but should change over time as familiarity with shared services and their collective benefits become more widespread.
Indeed, where there is a will there is a way – or in this case where there is a collective will, clear direction and a modular, agile approach, there’s no reason why shared services won’t live up to their promise.