Technology and government have a mixed reputation. While ICT at central government struggles to deliver, at the local public administration level there are clear signs that technology is making an ever-greater impact.

Take the ambitious work going on at the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council, working with BT, has delivered a converged communications system including the supply and management of a WAN to all council sites, an IP-based contact centre, new local area networks, IP telephony with unified messaging, desktop videoconferencing facilities and internet access with managed security services.

David Wilde, head of information and customer services at the council, sums up what seems to be a very technology-oriented project in real business impact terms: “It’s all been about improving the way we engage with people who need to talk to us.” He says the old telephone and voice systems were entirely separate and if a special request came in, for example about waste, it was passed on to seven different departments internally – which obviously lengthened response.

“Now we have a combination of the new infrastructure and new applications. We not only have much better communications internally we have also deepened the reach of the processes – we have cut out a lot of duplication of both staff and functionality in front and back-office. There’s a much quicker turnaround of information now, which has led to greater accountability and cut down the amount of investigation into claims.”

The new system, which reaches out to all 92 council sites, has been deployed over 18 months, reaching 75 per cent of relevant users in the first six months, with voice and data integration in the call centre and one-stop shops being the first target. “The technology is making it much easier to integrate customer service across the organisation,” says Wilde.

"There’s a much quicker turnaround of information now, which has led to greater accountability and cut down the amount of investigation into claims"

David Wilde, head of information and customer services, London Borough of Waltham Forest

“Before we were much more complex to deal with because we were so ‘silo’ based. Now we are basically pushing at an open door marked ‘centralisation of customer services’ – which is partly why that function has recently been added to my own job title.”

The investment comes to £7 million for the new communications infrastructure over five years, a cost which includes a budget of £200,000 for 4,000 VoIP handsets. The increase in network capacity has been impressive, with “100 to 1,000 times what we had with the legacy version”. The already accrued benefits include a 20 per cent improvement in call success rates at the council’s contact centres.

Mobilising workers

Modern communications have also started to make a big impact at Chesterfield Borough Council. It has saved an estimated £600,000 in the last two years by using a mobile access system from Pervasic for its building service engineers.

This investment in new technology by the council’s building services division means it is now firmly on track to meet its mandated Gershon efficiency targets, says Mark Tune, mechanical, electrical and ICT manager in the city’s housing services department.

With a local population of 99,000, a housing stock of 10,000 properties, 220 employees and 120 vehicles, the building services division of Chesterfield Borough Council has a total housing revenue budget of £15m. It decided to mobilise its field service engineers in order to enhance its service delivery and meet government efficiency and best practise guidelines. A previous paper-based system obliged engineers to drive back and forth to the depot, waiting for job sheets and vehicle provisioning, queuing to speak to the supervisor for job allocations and manually filling out time sheets.

Now staff have mobile access to job information on a PDA which links operatives in the field wirelessly to the council’s back-end systems, making sure real time scheduling of appointments and secure recording and transfer of data is possible. As a result engineers can progress and close down a job when completed, view jobs up to a week in advance – plus see how much money they have earned in a day. By gaining more autonomy and more flexibility, engineers are able to start their day slightly later but make early evening appointments.

The department is responsible for approximately 50,000 repair and maintenance jobs per year, including 6,000 out of hours emergency repairs every year.

Time for public sector CIOs to step up

Now may be a good time for local government IT heads to capitalise on the impact of successful IT projects at Waltham Forest and elsewhere.

This is the message behind new research from Socitm, the public sector IT managers’ group. It is suggesting the CIO role should be for leading the change for realisation of the transformation agenda within public services. The body also believes existing council heads of ICT are well placed to take on this responsibility. “In order to deliver real improvement, public services require a competent organisation, a supportive culture and a leader with the right skills,” who should be of CIO level says the study.

It goes on to detail key elements to such a position: leadership, capacity for strategic thinking and change management; ICT service delivery competence; and strong information and supplier management capabilities. (For more information, see www.socitm.gov.uk)

As a result of the productivity gains through the mobility application, the responsive completions of jobs now stands at 96 per cent. The council claims customer satisfaction levels are at an all time high of 91 per cent as citizens are able to request increasingly narrow appointment windows. “Since deploying the system, we are able to have the same number of people do more jobs within the same budget,” says Tune.

“By boosting productivity we’ve seen a 13 per cent increase per working day per engineer. We’ve deployed the system to the majority of our employees and are still in the process of rolling it out but so far we’re delighted with the results.”

Similar productivity benefits in terms of mobile communications suitability is being reported by a company that performs important building maintenance work for some four local councils: Kier Building Maintenance Services.

The team, part of the £1.6 billion Kier construction group, has put mobile applications in the hands of its field force operatives supporting Sheffield City Council’s 50,000 local authority homes, as well as similar operations in Leeds, Ealing and Islington. The new mobile system is currently rolled out to over 230 operatives working on different contracts across the country as part of the first phase. Over 150 of these are in Sheffield, with over 20 in Ealing, 50 in Islington and future works planned in Leeds.

The ultimate target is deployment to a total of 500 operatives by the end of 2007. A key early result is productivity increases of 1.5 additional jobs per operative per week over former, manual systems, according to the company. “Daily work schedules were telephoned out to operatives in the field by supervisors,” says Phil Oades, service manager for responsive repairs and gas at Kier Building Maintenance Services.

“This not only resulted in a lot of mobile phone air time but also interrupted operatives when they were in the middle of existing jobs. We were also using a manual system for job scheduling so staff had to return to the service centre to hand in completed job sheets.”

Kier was sensitive to making the transition to the new way of working as smooth as possible. “We made a deliberate decision to be inclusive in asking for feedback. We did a lot of consulting with everyone from senior management to trades unions and the operatives themselves. Small changes can make an enormous difference in terms of benefits to the user and this is one of the reasons we had no resistance when it was deployed,” says Oades.

"Since deploying the system, we are able to have the same number of people do more jobs within the same budget"

Mark Tune, mechanical, electrical and ICT manager, Chesterfield Borough Council

He says that apart from the productivity boost another benefit has been improved data quality, as information is validated upon entry into the system, leading to fewer queries relating to bonus payments or overtime. “And unlike paper, the information doesn’t get damaged or smudged in the rain.” Another important benefit has been the environmental aspect since each operative was using a significant amount of paper a week.

Finally, he adds: “We haven’t yet factored in potential savings from other efficiency gains, such as travel reductions on fuel for operatives not having to continually return to the service centre, or significant reduction of mobile phone air time costs.”

Communications – the C in the stock phrase ICT – definitely seems to be a key enabler of business change and greater efficiency at local government level.