Pilots in need of navigators

9 Mar 00
The government is suffering from 'pilot mania' in its present quest for more efficient government, a leading management consultant has warned.

10 March 2000

John Binns, a partner in the government services practice of management consultancy Arthur Andersen, told delegates at a conference last week that 'joining up the lessons of all these pilots is causing major problems for the bodies trying to form policies at a national level'.

Instead, he called for a new regime to disseminate best practice across local and central government to provide authorities with good examples and save wasteful duplication of effort on similar schemes.

But implementing such a knowledge-based system requires more than access to internal databases, Binns pointed out. 'Knowing when it is the right time to apply something is very important,' he said, 'and it is also important that systems are used to enable people to create new knowledge and encourage them to be innovative, not just share existing knowledge.'

His comments come after revelations that the 'beacon' sites set up by the government in the health service to highlight best practice have attracted little attention.

Binns cited one knowledge-based system set up as a joint venture between Arthur Andersen and the Chartered Institute of Housing. The on-line Housemark scheme provides details of good practice and recommendations on procedures on a subscription basis. Housemark was launched last November and so far 100 local authorities have signed up. 'It provides a massive speed-up in identifying what different authorities are doing,' said Binns. 'It is a way to short-circuit the benchmarking process, rather than having to sit in a room surrounded by Post-it notes and bits of paper stuck on the wall.'

Binns also told delegates at the conference, organised by TBC Research and supported by Public Finance, that government organisations should give much greater power to their customer-facing departments. 'You need to organise around a powerful customer service department and think about the provision of the back office as a service to that front end, not leave it at the fag end, as tends to happen at the moment,' he said.

But Matthew Rowe, a delegate from Cambridgeshire County Council, pointed out that joined-up government is already happening in many areas. 'If you look at co-operation between the probation service and the police or between social services and health authorities, it is clear that joined-up government has been happening for a long time,' he commented. 'Just because a customer may not be able to access all the services via a single front end, it should not be assumed that nothing has been happening behind the scenes.'

John Kirke, a director of independent management consultancy the Barony Group, told the conference not to expect to make savings in staff costs as a result of a move towards electronic service delivery. 'Demand will go up,' he commented. 'Transactions will go up and interaction will go up. It will not mean fewer staff. They might be doing different things, but they will still be there.'

He added that there will also be a big difference in the way IT systems are provided to local authorities in the future, with a move away from major capital investment in systems towards renting applications hosted by suppliers, such as Microsoft, which estimates the cost of a hosted application at about £1,000 per user per year. 'Some primary suppliers in this market are developing hosted applications for delivery in the next 18 months,' he said.

Moves like this would help drive down costs, but would also present local authorities with a number of new issues, he said. In future, with falling telecommunications costs and the ability to access applications from new appliances such as digital TVs, there will be a big drive for staff to work from home. 'Why do your staff have to be in an office?' he asked. 'If you no longer need mainframes, PCs or big offices, the implications are phenomenal, but the change in culture takes a lot of thinking about.'

Binns agreed that new systems will mean rethinking the way local authority services are organised. 'This could mean the redundancy of the language of centralisation and decentralisation and the great pendulum swings between the two that local government has been through over the past 20 years,' he said. 'Technology makes that redundant by delivering local services without having to worry about where the people who deliver the services are.'


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