Technology has a crucial role to play in enabling local government reform

James Arvin Profile picture for user James Arvin June 8, 2021
Local government reform is triggering massive organizational and technological change for UK councils. James Arvin at Unit4 looks at the scope and scale of the transformation and the technology choices for new unitary councils.

West and North Northamptonshire Council logos © West and North Northants Council Authority
(© West and North Northamptonshire Councils)

Current local government reform in the UK entails the abolition of the traditional two tiers – district/borough plus county councils – in favor of one, single-tier, unitary authority. The policy has been redistributing power for the past two decades and it’s been accentuated by local government’s role in the pandemic. Joining up services in a unitary system is aimed to provide more efficient service delivery for residents and local businesses, with opportunities to transform services, increasing value for money. 

A report from Oxford Economics, commissioned by the County Councils Network, suggests that devolution of full public spending to county areas could create one billion new jobs in the next decade, generate £26 billion ($36bn) extra for the national economy, and deliver £11.7 billion ($16.5bn) in savings per year over a five-year period.

The challenge for these new unitary authorities, according to the Local Government Association, is that while local government is getting some (but not much) more money – a 4.5% increase if they also raise council tax bills by five percent – they are being tasked with making much more important decisions using the limited technology they’ve had for years.

An example of the scope and scale of change

Local government in Northamptonshire, for example, is facing its biggest change in over 40 years. Government legislation was passed to create a new West Northamptonshire unitary council serving the areas of Daventry District, Northampton and South Northants, and a new North Northamptonshire unitary authority serving Wellingborough, Kettering, Corby and East Northants. Along with the former Northamptonshire County Council, these eight existing authorities were reorganized in to the two new unitary councils.

Previously these organizations used varying technology platforms, so with the newly created authorities, a major technology convergence programme was required. 

The restructure across the county went live on 1st April 2021 on a single integrated ERP platform, having migrated from 16 individual legacy systems.

The shared service between Northamptonshire County Council, Cambridgeshire County Council and Milton Keynes Council (formerly known as LGSS), already had an established shared ERP cloud solution, which was expanded to deliver the ERP requirements for the two new unitary councils. This was made possible in short timescales, by the system’s design and flexibility, which already serves diverse local government organizations (including unitary as well as county councils, and a children’s trust, amongst others). As part of the creation of the two new authorities, delivery of the ERP shared service moved to West Northamptonshire Council.

In scenarios like this up and down the UK, before the change, each original organization operated separately and had its own finance HR and payroll departments, staffed by its own people – and its own CEO and CIO as well. These are all being merged in a process which affects thousands of employees and hundreds of IT systems. 

Each entity being merged will have its own suite of back-office systems such as finance, payroll and HR, as well as council-specific citizen-facing systems fulfilling functions like council tax collection. A large authority might have as many as 150 separate systems.

These legacy systems are generally on-premise (though some will by now be cloud-based), and typically will not be joined up. They may have incompatible data models and may operate in isolation from each other, often only connected by offline manual processes and work arounds. 

As we have witnessed across Northamptonshire, technology has a vital role to play in bringing organizations, people and processes together. 

The role of technology in enabling reform

Generally, when councils merge due to local government reform, in the first stage the technology is consolidated rather than transformed. Organizations tend to consolidate onto whatever is the most suitable platform already in use among them, often the ERP used by the former county council.

If none of the existing councils has a cloud ERP platform in place, they may test the market through a formal tender process and procure one for the new unitary authority. But since most UK authorities have been pursuing a cloud-first strategy since it became official policy in 2013, one of the major cloud ERPs will usually be available within the group.

Technology that likes to change

Over the years a constantly changing environment is not a new dynamic for Local Government and while some organizations have adapted well to this, the size and scale of change required as part of the ongoing reform agenda is on a whole new scale.

Even when the consolidation is complete, change doesn’t stop. The COVID pandemic, which foisted dramatic change and strain on local authorities, gives a flavour of the turbulence and unpredictability of the environment in which the new entities will have to operate. 

The new authorities will need to be much more agile and adaptable than those they replace. They will need the organizational capability to consolidate data from many places and analyze it in real time to make faster decisions. They will want the ability to perform complex scenario planning and flexibly reallocate resources – all while ensuring the safety and security of employees and citizens, and compliance with regulation. 

In order to operate this way in future they will require technology with the following characteristics:

  • Cloud-based so it’s accessible remotely, scalable and delivers timely innovation.
  • With local government-specific processes delivered out-of-the-box.
  • Agile and easy for staff to further /adapt and evolve over time as the council continues to change shape.
  • Easily extendable to other specialist systems bringing previously disparate systems closer together.
  • Automated for greater efficiency and ease of use.
  • Smart, so it adapts, offers help and fills gaps itself – making work easier for users.

Southampton City Council is one example of a unitary authority that runs on a cloud ERP system with the characteristics that will allow it to become more agile. As Helen Baker, ERP Support and Development Manager says: 

Unit4 is going to provide the tools to enable the council to work smarter and be more agile. By automating and streamlining processes in the cloud, as well as introducing self-service, Southampton City Council will be able to direct more resources to other key services.

Support from technology partners

Even before local government reform, public sector organizations were already under extreme pressure to deliver better citizen services with less funding. Given the scope and scale of local government reform, not to mention disruption caused by the pandemic, technology will play an increasingly crucial role in the transformation of unitary councils going forward — enabling this transformation will demand the support of technology partners with the right capabilities, services, sector expertise and a collaborative approach.

To find out more, download your copy of A historic opportunity for Public Sector.

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