Can one IT solution measure up for all?

Councils vary considerably in scale across the UK, so when it comes to a local government software solution can one size really fit all? Phil Garvey tries to find out

In recent years many council waste management operations departments have turned to IT solutions to help them reduce administration and deliver on the myriad of reporting requirements. How can these IT systems cope with the diversity of councils’ waste management needs across the UK?

Within this article I will set out to establish whether large and small council requirements are similar, only with higher volumes of waste collection. I will also endeavour to evaluate whether one piece of software can meet the requirements of both large and small councils. In addition, I will look at the move to unitary status and examine whether software that was previously in place in a district is appropriate for roll out within the larger unitary.

One of the key drivers for the new unitary authorities was benefits of scale. It is easy to assume that four smaller councils who become one larger one should have a solid cost justification, but is the same true for software? Does size really matter? Let’s examine the situation of a small rural district with 50,000 domestic properties and a larger city with 250,000. They both have the same requirements for domestic waste collection. If we assume that both deliver an identical alternate weekly collection, then where do the differences lie?

Most suppliers would recommend that any new system utilises the council gazetteer. A Local Land and Property Gazetteer is an address database maintained by local authorities in the UK, who have responsibility for creating all addresses. However, until recently those same local authorities have not held a unified and consistent list of addresses within their areas. This has led to various services within individual local authorities maintaining separate and incompatible address databases.

Impact of modernisation

In recent years the Government has required local authorities to modernise their processes to take advantage of new technologies and provide better linked up services to their residents and businesses. One of the ways to achieve this has been to develop one address resource for their entire local authority area. This has meant that a resident may notify a council of their change of address at one place without having to repeat the process throughout a number of service areas within an authority.

If we assume this is the core repository then the actual volume issue around loading properties almost disappears. Once the loading script is written for the data, it is negligible extra work to load five times the volumes. The larger council will have more rounds data to manage, but they should have more resources to help with the task. Big or small, rural or city, most councils have similar infrastructures. They all have complicated finance systems, most now have a call centre. Most also utilise an in-house GIS or mapping solution. In these cases the requirements of all councils are very similar.

However, addressing the issues of people and process is a key area of disparity between differing sized councils – a larger one requiring a different solution. The beauty of a small council is access on a personal level to necessary resource.

In larger councils getting things done is much more process-orientated, while there has been a growing trend among larger councils to outsource key functions and services.

The largest single area where the requirements differ among large and small councils is the complexity in service delivery. Take bulk collections as an example. In a rural environment, efficiencies are usually gained by collections from areas on certain days. There is not a great deal of benefit in trying to do anything more complex. Contrast this to a large city council where tight conurbations and any day collections need to exist.

Here ICT for the larger council needs to be not only more complex, but also more capable of changing the capabilities of the service. Routing the vehicles, handling additional jobs and crew communications all become very important.

In a waste disposal scenario, a small waste disposal authority may be able to ask its weighbridge operators to load weighbridge ticket files one at a time for validation. In a larger authority the sheer volumes may necessitate the need for an automatic uplink. The tickets themselves may be identical, but the volumes mean different solutions are required. There are many applications where one size does fit all. It is important to ensure that larger installations utilise software that has been architected properly.

As a simple test, indicators for large scale software include being web-based and having an industry standard database as the core, such as Microsoft SQL. There should also be an industry standard workflow engine at the heart of the application. The simplest test however, is to go and see the application working in a similar sized council.

Phil Garvey is managing director of Whitespace Waste Software

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