Second in a series of blogs on Digital Strategies for local public services

In iNetwork’s Innovative Access to Public Services community, the front and back office integration issue continues to be a huge problem which doesn’t seem to be going away – this particular issue was highlighted at a NWeGG chief officer event way back in 2005 and it wasn’t new even then.

Why is the problem? Simply, if data needs to be entered multiple times into multiple systems this generates cost, create opportunities for errors to creep in and is a ‘non value adding’ activity from the customer perspective.

The problem is that local public services, such as councils, have hundreds of systems. Paul Green, the CIO of Sheffield City Council, has a great example where he can demonstrate how a single individual’s social care information was replicated across a range of systems that quickly used to get out of sync.

This shouldn’t be such a big issue except that ICT systems providers work hard to keep data within their systems as this creates lock-in i.e. difficulty in switching to other systems. They can then also sell add-ons at a premium, like mobile solutions, to their core systems because others have difficulty emulating them. From a council perspective this bad news because supporting a mobile solution for each line of business application is resource intensive and expensive.

This is proving a tough nut to crack, particularly where Customer Relationship Management systems try to join up the dots and create holistic views of an individual so they can be managed more effectively. Without good integration CRM systems are not very effective.

What do most organisations do? They start by looking at where the greatest benefit lies – through analysis of the high volume, duplicate entry transactions. There are some great tools that help with this, but the high volume areas are usually well known.

Integration options do exist – interfaces are available, at a cost, and if the business case can be justified then the outlay of typically tens sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds to open them up can be justified.

Alternative integration methods based on techniques like screen capture work too though these often aren’t quite as robust as APIs, however they are much more cost effective, especially if used in multiple areas on a single license. They also present a cost effective option for integrating lower volume transactions. In practice a mix of APIs and screen capture or similar methods is often used.

Some councils, like Chorley, have opted to join up the interface at the human instead through single sign, dashboards of systems and effective scripting. With a strategy to move as many functions and processes as possible into the CRM, they have shown this to be very effective.

Street scene and waste collection services have benefitted from this approach at several councils – this works particularly well where a mobile solution has been deployed to enable telephony staff to manage calls on missed bins more effectively.

So what lies ahead? The wider challenge is multi-agency integration – enabling different organisations to support one vulnerable person and join up and manage their case work synergistically.

This is a nut that has to be cracked. It was a leading topic of conversation at the recent Greater Manchester Public Service Reform conference where the keynote was given by Sir Bob Kerslake, no less. And next to him were Lord Peter Smith, Sir Peter Fahy and Sir Howard Berstein. The frustrations on this subject at chief officer level were tangible and colleagues need to be conscious of this as this is wider than a Greater Manchester issue.

At the vanguard of this issue is support for troubled families, and it is great to see colleagues in areas like Salford and LB Lambeth getting to grips with the wider challenges of legal powers, consent and permissions controls.

This is a difficult area with considerable pitfalls. With rationalisation of ICT services it is important that we continue to share good practice and ideas – this is not a time to be looking inwards but for sharing, brainstorming and innovating.

Personally I would like to see more pressure on suppliers from the Cabinet Office, Local Government Association, SocITM, NHS and ASSIST to improve interoperability as this alone could enable a great deal of public service improvement.

Status: being led by councils largely individually although there are many common activities and issues. Little structured support across the sector. Significant priority for most councils and local public services.

Next week: Digital substitutes: enabling more effective support for people.