Local Government IT Managers Must Think Laterally

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Local governments should be looking to make savings through tactical investment, not by clinging on to old kit, says Centralis’ Ewen Anderson

In an uncertain economy, our instinct is to make the best of 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 view their core responsibilities as emptying the bins and burying the dead – with everything else being 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.

IT as the soft target

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 percent and 70 percent 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.

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