Shared Services are the new Black

Every where I go now all the talk is of Shared Services. Where once the mantra was “2005 / 100% online” (or, for a few, “joined up / citizen focused”) it is now all about sharing.

From the CIO’s very own website:

There are over 1300 public sector organisations in the UK and there is considerable scope to consolidate how we can share services across organisational boundaries so that our common processes are provided faster, better and cheaper.

Google lists 582,000 mentions of the string “‘shared services’ government uk”. That’s quite a few less than the string “‘e-government’ government UK” which has 9,990,000. But, nonetheless, a healthy total given the relative newness of what we might call government 2.0 were a similar name/version not already in vogue for community-based sites around the globe. Indeed, I’d probably go for government 3.0. 1.0 was all about silos, castles and fortifications (was ever thus, at least since Cromwell’s day), 2.0 was all about the promise of the web to break down the barriers and join up the front end whilst buying time for the back ends to be integrated and 3.0 is the promise of true sharing, whilst being cognizant that 2.0 didn’t quite come off.

A well placed source in government told me only the other day that he feared that there might already be 1,300 shared service projects in UK Government, i.e. one for every governmental organisation.

That number is eerily familiar as is the thinking behind it. In the days of 2005 / 100% online, the start was one website per department (the end, if today can be referred to as the end, was sadly different with well over 4,000 websites). It doesn’t seem unlikely that every one of the 1,300 government organisations is embarking on a shared services project, secure in the thinking that “of course their services is shareable, any body who wants to can come and use it”. You can see the business cases now. Have service to share, all offers welcome.

Sadly, with very few exceptions, not one of them will be shared with anyone else. Long ago, I used to put this picture up at conferences as an intro to shared services. The image below is from a deck presented to government’s “e-champions” in October 2001.

I’d ask the audience how many of them ran an expenses application. Every hand would go up. Then I’d ask if they thought that they could consolidate all of those into a single application – after all, expenses processing has to be one of the simplest applications out there. All the hands would go up again. I’d then say “so how about we do it then – we can start tomorrow.” There’s be a bit of shuffling, a few hems and hahs and a lot of people looking at their feet. Of course, I’d say, that would ne naive. Some of you like having the name of the person claiming at the top left, others at the top right, some of you sum the numbers differently, you’d all have different cost codes, some of you would self-certify and others would require some workflow, some would write cheques direct and others would do it through the payroll. It was never going to work.

So I’d propose a way forward. Rather than consider a shared service as a project now, why didn’t we define a standard for how expenses programmes would work in the future. Then, as everyone refreshed their applications and built new ones, they’d be built to the new way. We’d work with SAP and Peoplesoft and so on to have the new standard built into their applications, using the might of government and, pretty soon, a standard expenses form would be a dropdown choice in the configuration menu. People could converge when they were ready to. Had we started that in October 2001, I wonder where’d we be now.

But then, it’s not as easy as that. Joining up is hard to do. Three related factors get in the way: Power, Control, Trust. No one in government wants to reduce their power base by giving up control of delivery or operation and handing it to someone else who they don’t trust to do it right.

How do I know this? The first three government shared services: the Government Gateway, DotP (host of directgov) and the Knowledge Network (designed to make the sourcing and compilation of ministerial briefs simpler) are still, five and a half years after launch the only shared services out there. I was involved in the building of two and the operation of the third.

In June 2001, this picture attempted to show the output of the business plan for the e-Delivery team, inside the Cabinet Office

Government organisations, as is typical, have latched like barnacles to the bottom of an old trawler, to the promise of new funding for shared services – hey, I did the same in 2000/1, when the badge needed had a different name. Today, everything is being badged as shareable. Pretty soon, we will see (formerly used by the Inland Revenue to let you share tax returns that weren’t yours) rebranded as a clearing house for sharing services. The number of “tracks” available for sharing will soar, the actual number of downloads will hover near zero.

There’s one person in government who has the potential to change this – and that is Sir David Varney. Whilst all has been quiet since his appointment as a new Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, I hope that he’s working on how government can build a convergence plan, starting with one or two focused but high impact services, that will make the case for doing this right.

One thought on “Shared Services are the new Black

  1. hi, really enjoy your site. you mention 1300 public sector organsions. the information commissioner states that there are over 100,000 public sector organisations in the uk affected by freedom of information. Question – does any body know how many public sector organisations there are? and where i can get a list from. Defintion of pub sector organisation – organisation which is totally run on public money e.g. DEFRA & RPA would count as 2 organisations.

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