Matthew Coates, who chaired this session, introduced himself as the Director General for Government Business Services - a cross government shared services, pensions and recruitment platform. Matthew outlined his hopes for an insightful discussion on the subject of shared services and invited other panellists to introduce themselves in the same way.
Angela Lewis is the Director for People Transformation at Companies House, which comes under BEIS. Her role involves looking at the organisations’ operating model and understanding how this will be different from shared services agendas in the past. In the session, she hoped to gain a greater understanding of the challenges of front-line operational delivery.
John Fitzpatrick is the Director for Digital Enablement in the Ministry of Defence. Fitzpatrick’s
passion for shared services stems from the fact that expectations have moved on significantly over time and he hoped to use this session to discuss how we can meet the changing expectations and demands of service users.
John Bishop heads up HMRC digital technology services. He admits to being a shared services sceptic and has witnessed the challenges or the conflicting requirements within large organisations. As such, Bishop hoped to learn more about other people's experience of avoiding gridlock with shared services and competing demands.
Chris Perkins is the General Manager for public sector at Microsoft, working across the sector to support digital transformation . He was keen to engage in driving value and convergence around data and hoped to use the session to draw out opportunities for innovation.
Colin Cook is the Director of Digital in the Scottish Government. He looks at the role the
Scottish Government can play in transforming the digital sector as a whole and has
ambitions to engage with commercial suppliers to ensure up to date and reliable solutions for shared service users.
Ed Pikett, Director of central government at Hitachi Solutions is a former Chief Digital Officer within the Civil Service and user of Shared Services. He was interested in how you can retain a user centred approach when designing and delivering at multi departmental scale.
Erica Lewis, Director of cyber security and digital identity at DCMS, also sits as the representative on the transformation programme for DCMS. Lewis hoped to listen to others’ experiences of shared services to incorporate these into the DCMS transformation programme.
Jamie Watson, Business Development Director at Hitachi Solutions, works very closely with partners at Microsoft to support digital transformation and hoped to hear views and discuss the delivery of corporate services across central government.
Glynn Jones is the Chief Digital Officer in the Welsh Government. Glynn is currently embarking on a broad IT transformation programme which looks into how corporate services can be digitised to replace former digital HR systems.
Nathan Moores works in the Government Digital Service as the strategy director helping to lead the Matrix cluster.
Esther O’Sullivan is the Head of Digital for the Legal Aid Agency in the Ministry of Justice. Esther is involved in building up shared services projects on a smaller scale and was interested to discuss practical ways to scale up.
Alexandra Pritchard currently heads up strategy and performance in nuclear at the MOD. Tamzin Woolison is from the Ministry of Defence. She leads the transformation programme
set up to modernise the HR, payroll and pensions for the military and veterans. Tamzin is
also the Deputy CEO for Defence Business Services.
The Chair, Matthew, said every organisation was dealing with aggregation and standardisation. This involves walking a tightrope of how to meet the needs of the users, while still getting the benefit economically from aggregation and standardization. The Chair said government and other public sector organisations are lagging behind the most advanced in the commercial sector. Public sector organisations are often more complicated, making the application a challenge.
The Chair highlighted the importance of personnel. The use of shared services is about problem solving, with many organisations facing the same challenges, such as around payroll. The question was best to seek to solve them, both rapidly and incrementally.
The Chair suggested the sector’s motto should be “it’s a journey”. Everyone is working at the same problems, with the most successful being those who set clear ambitions, with clear milestones and a clear destination.
Nathan reflected on the history of shared services. The first phase, in the 1980s, was about trying to bring shared functions together within individual organisations. The second phase, in the 1990s and 2000s, was about bringing that together across organisations and creating
the first cross-government shared service centres, for example, through the Ovato contract (printing company). The third phase is about embracing technology. While phase one and phase two were about reducing the burden on people in the system, through labour arbitrage, offshoring and centres of excellence. The third instead focused on the digital tools that would transform delivery and thinking about where the shared service market goes in future as technology continues to improve.
Nathan also said organisations that have not made the journey to cloud face similar problems – using heavily configured legacy IT, struggling to attract experts at using it while retaining those who have managed it previously. There are also increasing security issues – ransomware attacks as systems run out of license and support. So many organisations need to move from these legacy systems to the cloud ERP solutions, though it’s also about creating the right landscape to deliver end-to-end services. Nathan flagged that everyone faced the challenge of how to improve user experience, professional users, general users and externally-facing suppliers. Costs also ought to be driven down, with technology allowing for work to be done at scale and licensing arrangements mirroring this.
Nathan argued that government and arm’s length bodies need to adopt these technology
opportunities, with more needing to follow the lead of organisations in the charity sector.
Ed said Hitachi Solutions was working with Microsoft in government on Finance and Operations and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation and research. Hitachi, Microsoft and other technology companies are needed in order to get the most out of the available technology.
Chris highlighted examples of work Microsoft is engaged in with public sector organisations around shared services, such as Milton Keynes Hospital deploying Microsoft’s platform to drive tools for patient consultation and planning. Microsoft’s platform can also integrate with SAP to create further analytical tools, and the company is working on industry-specific systems such as Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, which enables back-end systems to be joined up to allow for a better user experience.
Angela emphasised the need to avoid standing still to improve user experience. She noted that standardisation is perhaps one of the biggest challenges with shared services and one which large employers have not been able to grasp. In response to Nathan’s suggestion that organisations should “adopt not adapt”, Angela offered her own perspective of working towards a single employer model and instead, noted that radical change and adaptation is needed in order to align organisations across government.
John Fitzpatrick said the next step in moving shared services forwards is to understand where the examples of best practice are, and to learn from and replicate them on a larger scale. John also suggested that organisations should adopt a collaborative approach in order to identify areas of backlog within the pipeline and share the workload when implementing solutions in order to avoid burnout.
Esther reiterated that moving shared services forward is not necessarily a technical problem. Instead, she posited that the issue is in the data at hand. Referring to Operation Blueprint, Esther noted how the data used across organisations is often not mature or cohesive
enough to support an efficient workflow. As such, workflows can become disjointed. To overcome this, Esther advocated for incremental improvements in big data sets across government.
Colin picked up on the external, public facing side of user research and service design. He noted that this is a complicated and professional function that requires investment in people and processes. He highlighted that the complexity of service design can often be misunderstood and said that we need to bring this to the attention of the customer, making them aware of what is unique about what we do. He added, decisions need to be set within the operational model envisioned for organisations whether that be a standardised approach or a more agile and reactive system.
The chair gave John, Nathan and Ed the opportunity to respond to these comments and to draw out the relevant themes and conclusions.
John concluded that shared services are fundamentally a people problem. He drew upon his own experience at HMRC, where silos within the organisation would work separately and in their own directions because there was no real incentive to work together. He opened up the question as to how the culture within shared services could be changed to encourage people to realise the benefits of working collaboratively.
Alexandra similarly recognised the challenges mentioned, adding that we often fall down on the inputs of user experience. She stated that we don't tend to consult users on what they need, design ideas are often missed out and users are unable to ask questions which stunts the progress of digital platforms.
Ed made the point that this is because there has traditionally been a lack of user research and design because products were not configurable. Increasingly, there is more flexibility in design, the ability to flip design on its head and present designs and processes that people didn’t necessarily know were available before. Ed asserted that we must work together with a complete understanding and focus on objectives. Without core objectives and absolute certainty of what you are trying to achieve it is incredibly difficult to get there.
Coming back to John’s earlier point on backlogs, Glynn also noted that better data is needed across organisations, ALBS and Local Authorities to identify investments and priorities. Secondly, on user needs, he said that business owners, who are less well versed in shared services, see user need and design as unnecessary and undeliverable, instead only focussing on getting a platform in place with a comprehensive system. His third point was on ALB’s and context . He noted that when offering shared services to smaller ALBs, we must be mindful of potential cyber risk if IT isn’t set up well and ensure that they are supported in establishing robust and secure systems.
Tamzin, circled back to the point of silo culture within shared services and rationalised that many employees view standardisation and aggregation as a threat.
The Chair agreed and said the challenge was where to draw the line with standardisation and aggregation.
Colin reflected on the need for a culture in the civil service for success to be determined by meeting the needs of customers. This will create an environment where resources are channelled to products that help the customer, helping shared services work most effectively.
John said this applied to many other organisations in the third sector and even private sector, rather than everyone building their own services individually. Third sector companies in particular sometimes have better reach than government departments and this could be helpful in meeting user needs.
Asked for closing thoughts, Nathan said he got a sense of the desire to collaborate and welcomed this, even where there would be challenges in working together. Nathan also suggested legacy shared services experts should work together with those able to handle newer shared services, bringing their experience and expertise at meeting user needs into these new platforms. Nathan says the biggest challenge going forward would be a cultural change, rather than technological.
Jamie highlighted the need to upskill work personnel and people more widely, so that user needs can be best met and fears around the threat of shared services can be circumvented. Showing the value of these tools, and inclusion in them, will make the conversation around shared services easier. It will also help to deliver more effective outcomes by creating an appropriate cohort of digital expertise and advocacy across the entire civil service to support the Shared Services agenda.
Ed reiterated the importance of showing people tools, and how they add value, rather than simply talking about its functions. Ed emphasised the desire of companies to demonstrate to organisations how to use these tools.
Chris emphasised the importance of service design, and how this can meet user requirements. He also flagged that companies hold tools that can aid work to deal with legacy issues, and that experience was being built by Microsoft and others in multi-agency work.