Shared Services Between Councils Will be the Norm

Latest figures show that sharing services is now all but universal in local authorities, with 98% of councils committing to some degree of sharing delivering savings of more than half a billion pounds.

However, collaboration, sharing knowledge and resources, wasn’t always the way people worked.

In 1914 John G. Bartholomew published “An Atlas of Economic Geography” which included an isochronic map. These maps show distances as time values and from the map it can be seen that, in 1914, it took between 10 and 20 days to get to India. An ambitious manager in India carrying out his job just before the outbreak of war in 1914, is, clearly, on his own.

Asking London for information would take a minimum of 20 days to get an answer and that would depend on favourable winds and tides, an accommodating train schedule, and a prompt answer coming back from head office. The amount of written information managers in his position relied on was, by necessity, scant. Reporting cycles were annual at best and policy tended to be fixed with little or no centralised innovation. If our manager wanted to achieve anything, he had to think it up and get it done, himself. (I say “him” because in those times it almost certainly was a him.)

Contrast our Edwardian manager with the way councils work today and the differences are stark. The figures show that almost without exception, councils of all sizes now work collaboratively. They rely absolutely on information; generating and consuming it on a vast scale and from many, varied sources. One decision could easily involve half a dozen or more people working in a variety of partner councils and other external agencies, and result in an exchange of emails and other documents and messages running into the 100s. And this new model of working – in what is often called the Information Age – means councils need to be able to communicate and share information easily, with people who work for them and many others who need to work with them.

These needs are driving the enthusiasm for shared online collaboration environments which support both the new, semi-informal, social way of working in councils’ increasingly flattened hierarchies (no Edwardian despots here) and the acquisition, preservation and management of the priceless corporate asset information represents.

Collaboration between councils requires secure storage, tight and resilient access control and easy interconnectivity. But most of all, to be successful, to achieve the necessary engagement and adoption, its usability needs to be intuitive. In the same way our manager in his lonely distant outpost couldn’t call on head office for help, councils needing to foster collaboration will find it impractical to commit to a system that requires specialists to set it up, experts providing lots of support, trainers going out from HQ, and so on.

A collaboration environment needs to work the way people work, it needs to fit in with existing systems, it needs to be universal in so far as the equipment and software needed to access it are standard and in everyday usage, and how and when to use it need to be obvious. It also needs to be resilient and affordable with a clear return on investment. As much of it as possible should run on information utilities – so the cloud is a given – and on existing multi-purpose computer equipment. It must also be available on any device; smartphones and tablets as well as Macs and PCs.

None of today’s social platforms would have achieved any traction if it were expensive, difficult to understand or required special equipment to use it. While their informality, lack of security and absence of useful business information processing functionality rules them out in the world of work, the way they established themselves through simple usability is an essential quality collaboration software providers must emulate.

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