Local government in England is undergoing a period of reform, where unitary authorities are being established in order to replace previous two-tier systems. In Northamptonshire, for example, two unitary authorities in the form of West and North Northamptonshire have been created to serve eight existing authorities.
The hope is that the citizens will be on the receiving end of a more simplified system, where local government can better understand and service their needs. And West Northamptonshire is looking to its Unit4 ERP system (Business World) to become the ‘beating heart' of the shared service that it leads on behalf of Northamptonshire County Council, Cambridgeshire County Council and Milton Keynes Council - to do exactly that.
West Northamptonshire is pursuing a strategy of integration with its Unit4 ERP and other systems, where connecting the dots across the local government authority will hopefully enable it to establish a ‘360 degree view' of its residents. One of the most common complaints of local government service delivery is that too often data is not used appropriately across the spectrum of services provided, meaning citizens have to share the same information multiple times and understand the mechanics of government.
The nirvana is to deliver local government in a way where it understands all aspects of a resident's life, providing information and services proactively.
The shared service that West Northamptonshire leads has been using Unit4 since 2018, when it replaced a variety of SAP and Oracle systems. However, in April 2021 it upgraded to the latest version of Unit4 Business World and migrated its system to the cloud (hosted by QuickThink Cloud).
The creation of the unitary authority and the desire to move away from lengthy and costly upgrades were the drivers behind the project. Speaking with Peter Borley-Cox, Head of Business Systems and Change at West Northamptonshire Council, he explained:
We had to undertake a major upgrade. We also had to move to the cloud as prerequisites to delivering for the new organizations.
The drive behind the software upgrade is really about compliance. One of the historical issues that the council had with their previous ERP systems was allowing them to become out of date. Historically there were issues with those big huge enterprise applications, taking enormous amounts of effort to develop an upgrade.
We were faced with months-long projects in order to bring software up to standard. What we're not looking for in software is something that we can buy, but then every time we want to do something with it, it's a costly and time consuming exercise. We want something that we can buy and then remain up to date with.
Borley-Cox said that the relationships with Unit4 and West Northamptonshire's cloud provider were key, given what was at stake in the project. He added:
I was sceptical, if I'm honest, about upgrading at the same time as moving to the cloud. I'm kind of a local government person through and through. I've been here 20 odd years. And if anyone had said to me that we would try two major things at the same time, my initial reaction would be one of scepticism.
We did a trial run, basically, and were convinced that it would be okay. The thing is, we have 14,000 users on our system. There's 11 different clients who use the same instance of software. So the risk for us is huge if something goes wrong. We're paying well over 20,000 employees every month through the payroll.
So, we have quite a low risk appetite for system availability and its core functions actually working. But I have to say it went pretty much without a glitch.
He said that since the upgrade and shift to the cloud, the shared service and its partners have more flexibility with regard to how and where they can access the system (which, given the expansion of distributed working, is critical). Previously there was a huge reliance on internal work to deliver the services, but this has also been simplified thanks to the project.
But, this is just the beginning. West Northamptonshire is now focused on how the new ERP system and delivery method can be used to deliver better services more broadly. Borley-Cox said:
There's a rolling development roadmap and we're looking at the key systems that integrate with our ERP - so we're currently looking at the income management system, the e-recruitment system.
We're looking at the integration software that we use to get data in and out of our ERP system and to make it as flexible as possible. Now having moved to the cloud and the major upgrade is out of the way, our attention really is turning to things like automation. How can that help us? How can we integrate and make better use of our data across the organisation?
Architecture and skills
Chris Wales, CIO at West Northamptonshire Council, added that establishing the current cloud-based ERP set-up with Unit4 is central to joining up services across the organization, with the aim of creating a more holistic experience for residents. He said:
ERP will be the beating heart, I think, of the architecture of the infrastructure over the next few years. Are there certain things, reporting tools or systems that we would want to drive benefit by linking them directly with ERP data, getting that single view of that customer? I think we're shifting more towards a strategy of looking at integration, looking at using cloud based systems to work together to leverage better results over the next few years.
I think that single view of the customers is a big one for us. I think that most residents expect local authorities to be a lot more joined up and switched on. Why is it you're billing me for my council tax, but you're getting me to register to vote, etc?
You know, if somebody calls in, do we know whether or not they have a vulnerability that we need to deal with, whether they are behind with payments, all those sorts of things. I think that'll probably be the mainstay of how we deal with it for the next few year,looking to be smarter by linking those services together and being able to use the data to make better decisions.
Wales added that the power for West Northamptonshire will not be in just having ‘great systems' but harnessing those systems by bringing them together and driving better results for people living in the area. And front of mind for Wales is creating the right skills framework to enable this for West Northamptonshire. He said:
Every technology project, generally speaking, is fairly bespoke in some way or another. So if we were to analogize to the real world, it's like building a skyscraper in central London. The number of organizations that would, in IT terms, hire builders, builders, builders, and more builders, and not hire an electrician, or a foreman or a project manager.
I've worked in software development companies where you can get budget to hire developers, but you can't get budget to hire anybody else. Similar with IT people in local authorities, you need infrastructure architecture, you need data architecture, you need good business analysis and project management and these are disciplines and skills.
And I think that if you don't have that wide variety of skills to carry the ball over the line your risks of failure shoot up precipitously