Local Government IT Managers Must Think Laterally About IT Resources

In an uncertain economy, our instinct is to make the best with what we have, rather than splash out on new products. Car owners are an obvious example. They eke out another thirty thousand miles from their old vehicle, patching her up at the garage every time she develops another rattle. The fact that a new car would save on fuel, tax and running costs – not to mention stress – is eclipsed by this determination to battle on grimly as before.

For local government departments likewise, the temptation is strong to do the best they can within the status quo, rather than searching for a better alternative. This is perhaps understandable after all, the public sector is facing severe cuts in funding, but the demands for services will remain as they are. Indeed, they may well increase as investment from the private sector shrinks. Meanwhile, Westminster appears to have turned its back on local government, shelving long-awaited reform of the finance systems.

While councils may see their core responsibilities as to empty the bins and bury the dead, with everything else optional; citizens’ expectations in times of financial constraint are likely to be much more wide ranging. Recession and redundancy are guaranteed to drive folks back to the libraries, into the parks and leisure facilities, and into the offices of social services for support. The local community, resentful of perceived bureaucratic inefficiency, will not tolerate a hike in council tax to pay for any financial shortfall. In short, town hall chiefs are being asked to spin straw into gold.

In this cost-saving environment, IT services can appear as a soft target. As long as the support staff keep the lights on, says the jittery finance director, then we’ll get by just fine, no? We cannot risk making an expensive mistake, so it’s far safer to use sticking-plaster rather than wield the big broom, right?

This reaction is hardly a new or surprising one. Restrictions on capital expenditure, costly procurement exercises and short term cost considerations have too often got in the way of long-term efficiency and quality of service benefits.

But, just like the stubborn car owner who patches up his wheezing gas-guzzler, those authorities that carry on regardless are living in a false economy. Investment in new IT solutions will quickly save money and provide better services: the dream scenario for all electable councillors.

Desktop virtualisation is the key to this alchemy. Instead of running hundreds, or thousands of costly desktop PCs across a number of different locations, departments and operating systems, a cloud-based service can dramatically improve efficiency whilst saving money on power and maintenance. Virtualisation encourages hot-desking and flexible working, as employees can work from any client device on the system, so reaping further financial savings.

According to technology analysts Gartner, organisations can save between 40 per cent and 70 per cent on overall operating costs per user per month by implementing an application or desktop virtualisation solution. A separate study by the Butler Group found that organisations can save half their energy costs by switching to a virtual desktop, which also represents a substantial reduction in an organisation’s carbon footprint.

Aside from the financial benefits, the efficiency gains are immediately reflected in the day to day running of the system. Authorities are increasingly expected to “join up” departments – education, health and social services – and coordinate their response to changing workloads, funding and priorities.

Central government’s decision to change roles and responsibilities between departments will inevitably increase the need for flexible, secure access to systems from new users, locations and organisations, with very little budget allocated to transitional services or support. Virtualising the desktop allows any system or data to be delivered without the need to visit or install software onto the user’s PC.

As well as this increased horizontal sharing, where information and systems are shared between different agencies, authorities are increasingly demanding vertical shared services, delivering a wide variety of different systems to similar organisations in different locations. These shared services can use desktop virtualisation to centralise delivery into a shared environment, where pooled budgets and resources can delivery economies of scale. It is often said that two can live nearly as cheaply as one (particularly if you cut out all the discretionary spending!) and this is equally true of running IT delivery services.

Critically though, local government will seek to make savings wherever it can that do not directly affect jobs or impact adversely on service delivery. That means reducing accommodation and travel costs, and cutting spend on new equipment and maintenance wherever it’s safe and sensible to do so.

Virtualised desktops can play their part here too, allowing staff to work from home, or any office with a client device, extending the lifespan of existing equipment and moving to a “swap on fail” for client devices. Taken together these measures can significantly reduce accommodation footprint through hot-desking, reduce maintenance and support costs and make staff more productive.

These technology solutions may not be wired to spin straw into gold, but they can deliver effective and efficient IT services whilst reducing costs. Town hall chiefs who realise calculated investment can save money may find the time is right to trade in the spluttering rust bucket for a vehicle that will drive performance and savings for many years to come.

Ewen Anderson is Managing Director of Centralis. Prior to founding Centralis, Ewen worked at a senior level in corporate IT and management services within British Gas. He has helped establish Centralis as one of the leading influencers of application and desktop delivery strategy in the UK, winning excellence awards from customers and major software vendors. Ewen holds a BSc Honours Degree in Psychology from Manchester University and a Diploma from the Institute of Management Services, the primary UK body concerned with the promotion, practice and development of methodologies for the improvement of productivity and quality.