Government: better by design

YOU may have seen the headlines a while back about £200m. being spent on something called future digital services, with the emphasis on computers, servers and the like. ‘Cloud’ came into it too.

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Surprisingly, however, the project is less about IT than it is a complete restructuring of the way government provides services – and is something of a success before it officially starts.

Yes, this is one of those rather rare ’States does well’ pieces. It’s quite involved, because it has multiple strands, but helps to explain why public sector transformation has a 10-year window.

More than anything, this digital transformation programme resembled what used to be called time and motion studies as those behind it laboured truly to understand what the States did, how tasks were undertaken, why they were necessary, and what kit staff worked on.

One of the consequences of the island’s historic committee-based system of government was that departments largely ran themselves and provided the support services they required – finance, technology, HR etc.

Not only was there a lot of duplication across government as a whole, no one really had a handle on what systems were being used, the cost of them, or strategic oversight of maintenance contracts and potential redundancy or vulnerability issues.

So it came as no surprise to Colin Vaudin, the States’ chief information officer, when they did some digging to find that while government has around 5,500 employees, its PCs and servers were running an incredible 4,500 different applications.

It also had hundreds of separate contracts with dozens of suppliers, each costing more than £100,000 a year, sometimes maintaining potentially vulnerable bespoke or ageing systems. In short, it was the proverbial dog’s breakfast.

Getting to grips with all this was, however, just the start because any work on IT systems had to drive three other requirements: ensuring that what the States of Guernsey does is digital by design, is customer led and supports the wider public sector transformation programme.

Think about that for a moment, and it’s a huge undertaking. Digital by design means any process has to be analysed to see who’s using it and why, whether it can be streamlined – or eliminated – through what used to be referred to as computerisation, irrespective of whether that task requires input from one or more States departments.

Simplistically, no more double keying of client data. Or why key at all if documents can be scanned and converted into data that way?

You’ll see at a glance that taking on this sort of process is big and complicated for any organisation – massively more so for something like the States of Guernsey which is, by definition, a bureaucracy – and best left to experts.

Enter Agilisys, a leading UK-based technology company and now the government’s preferred partner to help it deliver future digital services, and which spent more than two years working alongside all States departments to understand what they did, why, with what, and how it could be improved.

Remarkably, that was carried out at no cost to the taxpayer, because it was part of the tendering process and the zero payment risk Agilisys accepted had it not been recommended for the contract.

Along the way, for example, it was noticed by Employment & Social Security staff that the process to claim rent rebate (what’s now called income support) was horribly clunky and slow, hinging on people taking wage slips to Edward T Wheadon House. It often resulted in delays and people receiving too much benefit, then having to repay that just when they were already struggling.

One app later and you can now scan wage slips and other documents on your smartphone and send them to Wheadon House as soon as you get them. Result: pay slips no longer touched by staff, most social rents amended as required and before they’re actually paid, plus a load of grief and anxiety for beneficiaries removed.

Assuming that the States approves the Policy & Resources request tomorrow to enter into a 10-year contract with Agilisys Guernsey Ltd, we should see much more of this streamlining and consequent cost-saving.

In fact, what’s not generally realised is that States chief executive Paul Whitfield’s announcement that 200 civil posts can be saved was based in part on the scoping done by Agilisys and the States’ own IT people.

As its experts worked their way through departments, it quickly became clear that fully implementing digital by design could have a profound effect on how government works and become a dominant contributor to the £26m. of savings identified under the transformation programme.

A lot of this background work was done in-house by Colin Vaudin’s team, and Agilisys Guernsey’s boss Richard Hanrahan said the quality and extent of this background preparation provided to them was unprecedented.

‘We were able to build on that,’ he said, ‘and the subsequent visits we’ve paid to States departments has confirmed that the whole organisation is committed to reform.’

So what many of us thought of as an IT project on steroids is actually all about providing a new model of service design based on customer use and needs at the same time as introducing widespread business change. Because all this is enabled by technology, that’s why it’s collectively known as digital transformation.

The other point to make is that this package will also save taxpayers money. Although the headline cost is about £200m., that’s not new cash. Most, some £154m., is simply annual running costs and Agilisys will save about £6m. of that, or £19m. if you factor in inflation over the contract period.

More importantly, what’s being done also goes beyond ensuring ‘business as usual’ IT for the States and the digital transformation changes – there’s a very strong economic development element built into Agilisys’s bid that will benefit the island generally.

In many respects this is more remarkable because it’s possible only through the expertise and multinational connections of an organisation like Agilisys. And since it all depends on the Assembly approving the bid process at the States meeting tomorrow, discussion of it will have to wait for another day.

Meanwhile, as anyone who’s ever had dealings with Vehicle Licensing at Bulwer Avenue will know, the true test of transformation is if (when?) dealing with the department becomes a pleasant and frustration-free experience.

‘Agreed,’ Agilisys’ Richard Hanrahan told me. ‘That’s why I accept your challenge.’

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