It was former prime minister Tony Blair’s vision in the late 1990s that by 2005, everyone should be able to access central and local government services electronically. But how close have we got to that Utopian ideal?

Views differ, but Derby City Council is one local authority that has tried to make the idea of ‘joined-up’ mean a lot more than a meaningless box on a tick list. “Having a solution that can work across processes, services and organisations is essential to [us] being able to respond quickly and flexibly to the needs of our citizens and businesses,” says the council’s chief executive, Ray Cowlishaw.

Indeed, the claim is that the public, voluntary and private sectors have all been connected better electronically in this part of the country. Derby denizens are now able to dial into the call centre and get a consistent service based on what the council calls a ‘360-degree’ view of each individual, provided by better integrated databases and customer-facing software systems. When a Derby citizen calls Derby Direct, they don’t have to be passed around a variety of departments to find the information they need.

How does this work in practice? Take that decidedly non-glamorous but most assuredly essential from the community’s point of view, pest control. Derby’s environmental services pest control team has been one of the first parts of the council to experiment – and benefit from – a more unified information and workflow approach. This has resulted in an integrated workflow solution for handling such incidents.

“We were keen to lose the inefficiencies of paper shuffling,” confirms Andrew Hopkin, Derby’s assistant director for environmental health and trading standards. “We wanted to make sure our officers working onsite had access to the information that they needed to support them.”

Derby Direct’s customer services team now deal with all of the front office activities for this function. The claim is that as a result they can offer a range of additional services, from multiple agencies, at the same time.

Key to this has been an attempt to fashion an easy way for information and processes to become visible and available to partners, says David Gale, principal IT consultant with the council. This work centred on integration of Microsoft desktop portal technology with a workflow product, K2, from a company called SourceCode.

The key technology here is not portals, but workflow. Not as fashionable a term as it was maybe ten years ago, workflow can be thought of as the way a piece of ‘work’ (processing a claim, say) or data set (the information or actions put on it as it progresses through a system) is created, processed and changed to meet business goals.

Business workflows are normally handled as task schedules within an application server or as a way of organising a paper or electronic document trail within the organisation.

A solid basis

Derby’s strategic IT framework has been set up to deliver a set of top-level corporate services, including records management, workflow, content management, collaborative working, and remote and mobile access to relevant partners, using the Microsoft SharePoint portal technology as the main desktop platform. But SharePoint wasn’t sufficient for all the functionality, so an enterprise level workflow and business process management package, K2, from a supplier called SourceCode, has also been added to offer a city-wide solution for process management and workflow. “We can quickly build and tweak processes without worrying about modules and add-ons to integrate business applications. That’s where technology can help,” says the council’s principal IT consultant David Gale.

One part of workflow today is capturing and keeping relevant emails around a work process: market watchers IDC expects that market to approach $1.4bn in 2011, a growth spurt of over 20 per cent over the next five years.

Evidence shows delivering work in a logical, stepped fashion to users increases efficiency and makes for better visibility of both processes and activities. So in Derby’s case a workflow engine was set up to encapsulate all the data that the front office staff in the environmental department might need to know about how to push a pest control alert forward.

Specifically, the various stages of the process appear as ‘tasks’ within team members’ standard (Microsoft) SharePoint desktop environment, or as e-forms on whatever portable devices may be being used in the field, such as PDAs. Information from other systems can be automatically fed into the process, getting the right information to the people who need it, claims Gale. “When you’re trying to deliver joined-up services, you need to be able to get at [both] information and processes, otherwise it won’t be sustainable,” he points out.

Sounds great. But how is this helping worried people trying to deal with vermin right now – today? “We’ve seen a reduction of about seven minutes in the processing time for an enquiry,” reassures Hopkin. Multiply that by 3,000 enquiries typically received annually on this problem and real savings to both service user and council start to come into focus.

“We have gone from 2,000 telephone calls being abandoned calls down to 75 – a staggering improvement in customer service,” he adds.

Other benefits, say Derby’s managers, are cross-the-board improvements in customer service and boosted productivity of the pest control team. Staff are no longer tied to a desk doing routine admin, but are able to work onsite or (increasingly) remotely. In fact, in common with many local government environments, a move toward flexible working arrangements is also creating momentum for other changes and efficiencies, including a review of office space requirements. As there is now a complete audit trail of every aspect of a process, compliance needs are more easily met – plus, the way the solution is architected means that when processes need to change, the workflow process can be modified easily to meet any altered business requirements.

“The complete integrated system gives us a complete view of our customers and the status of our work for them,” says Hopkin. “We have speeded up the flow of information around the office and are ensuring the right support is there for our staff to do their job.”

Meanwhile, the interlinking of Microsoft Office and electronic document management capability within the complete workflow system has led to significant reductions in Derby’s paper and document storage costs.

The conclusion seems to be that joined up government can be a lot more than a slogan – especially if a team starts small with an easily defined process. In this instance it was pest control, but as Cowlishaw points out, it could be any core process, so long as the right technology tools are deployed: “If you want to deliver transformational change in a sustainable way, you need a set of enabling tools that can be used across your services.

“You need a clear framework, with standards and disciplines, to understand how those tools are going to fit together. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself implementing a new ‘point solution’ every time you come across a business requirement.”

The key to success is not about technology but integration with organisational goals – in this case, of course, making tax payers’ lives easier. “Having a solution that can work across processes, services and organisations is essential to being able to respond quickly and flexibly to the needs of our citizens and businesses,” says Cowlishaw. “It’s about connecting people to information.”