Monday, 13 October 2008

Back to Front – how to get efficiency gains

The Audit Commission’s report “Back to Front” (download here) reviews how councils have made back office efficiency gains and identifies lessons for the future. The report is released with a covering press release that emphasises the need for English councils to increase the £1.2bn in efficiency gains between 2005 and 2008 through savings on back office work. But how?

I won’t repeat the report’s suggestions here, but I will highlight one of its conclusions - a transformational approach is often required for the greatest benefits.

My own experiences have been that, in many cases, departments have made existing processes and procedures more efficient (e.g. through the use of more and better IT systems), without addressing and changing the core ways it undertakes business. As we always used to say, if you have a poor process, and you automate it, it just goes wrong that much more quickly and noticeably.

Also, some, through the purchase of the wrong type of IT system, have undergone lengthy business process re-engineering projects that have primarily been focussed on getting the departments processes to match the way the software works, rather than transforming the processes to provide the most efficient methods for the authority.

Most local authorities now have the e-government building blocks that enable innovative approaches to the delivery of services both internally and externally. Many modern systems are fully inter-operable, and applications like e-payments, e-procurement, workflow and call handling systems, combined with a transactional web-site and other interoperable back office systems, allow innovative processes to be introduced.

As a small example, many authorities are faced with the high costs of raising invoices for ad-hoc services, chasing payment, and then writing off un-recoverable invoices. Some authorities approached this by making the production of invoices easier/cheaper, and introducing automated debt recovery workflows (but still having to write off un-recoverable invoices). Others used their call centre and related systems to transform the process, insisting on payments in advance for many services, with no need to chase payments for invoices (and no need to write off unpaid invoices). These latter authorities have gained more through their transformation than those authorities that sought just to make their existing processes more efficient.

This is a small example of what is possible once you have the interoperable components of e-government in place. Far better, and more far-reaching transformations are now possible – all that’s needed are good ideas, and the willingness of Officers, managers and staff to implement them.

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