What's mine should also be yours

Local authority waste management departments are now understanding the benefits of sharing IT operations. Phil Garvey examines this trend in more detail

The concept of sharing has been ingrained in us from an early age. As children we were all told to share our toys or sweets and sharing is continually encouraged in many areas of our adult lives - car sharing, community bins and motorway lanes shared between coaches and taxis. All of this encouragement still has to overcome our natural instinct to own things - it is mine, I want to keep it and control it!

Given this natural instinct, it is no wonder that in government departments, when a requirement is identified, the first and natural reaction is to acquire - not to try and share with someone else. For this article, I will examine the area of IT solutions within the environmental departments of councils and whether they can be shared.

In a decade of severe budget restraints, all councils are looking for ways to improve efficiencies and increase return on investment. In several areas councils have combined operations to improve performance.
The recent drive to unitary authority status was driven by the ability to drive down costs through shared services such as payroll, HR and accounts. Other examples include waste partnerships such as those in Derbyshire and South Oxford, where councils have together procured a solution to meet a common requirement.

Purchasing cost savings
In these instances, the authorities are demonstrating that the cost of purchasing a shared solution is less than twice the cost of purchasing individual ones. Both of these council initiatives have implications on the IT required to support them, but what about IT solutions themselves? A quick review of the OJEC notices for software solutions will show a distinct - almost non-existent requirement for solutions that can be shared by multiple organisations working in partnership.

Let us examine two areas - one in front-line customer services for street scene and waste, and the other for back office operations such as waste disposal. In the first example, what are the implications for two councils sharing a contact centre and a shared delivery service? From an IT perspective, it is sensible to run everything from one database, but this causes several issues. The first is that the database needs feeding from two distinct local land and property gazetteers (LLPGs). The second is that the application may have to be viewed via two different GIS (mapping) applications. Although the operational service may be run as one, both councils will want to report individually as well as at the joint level. Differing service levels may exist across the two councils, and they may also employ different bins or sacks.

A route to partnership
In our second example, we can examine the issues of two authorities sharing a joint waste disposal operation. With new MRF technology, land tax and public opinion all driving change, many councils have opted a partnership route to provide new capital-intensive facilities. In this scenario, multiple weighbridge tickets will need to be loaded that cover a multitude of waste disposal and collection authorities. Having an agreed ticketing format can help to separate the tonnages, but reporting at joint and individual levels is a key requirement.

All of the above is simplified from an IT perspective if the councils who plan to share can standardise as much as possible - but the key issues still exist at the IT level. Modern technology has introduced the building blocks to allow true shared IT infrastructures. The key technologies to consider are:

1 The database - modern systems allow controller variables. Simply put, if you log on as 'A' you see 'A' data, if you log on as 'B' you see only 'B' data. The administrator can see both

2 Web technology - historically deploying common applications across multiple organisations was difficult to install and even more to support. With the invention of true web applications these issues simply disappear

3 Hosting - most councils have an IT infrastructure that is designed to keep out non-authorised traffic. Joining infrastructures is becoming simpler, but the growth in third party hosted applications together with the web technology again makes these issues disappear.

Technology has reached the point where shared services are valid alternative. Examples of this include South Oxford, where the Vale of White Horse and South Oxford District Councils have implemented a shared partnership agreement, acquired a service to run a combined call centre and service delivery solution for street scene and waste services. Another example is The Derbyshire Waste Partnership where Derby City and Derbyshire County Council have combined resources to procure a world-class disposal solution. As money becomesmore difficult to obtain, shared services and supporting IT systems should be high on the agenda for all councils.

Phil Garvey is managing director of Whitespace Waste Software

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