Innovation in the age of austerity

The Local Government Management Agency is using free and open technologies to advance public sector change

Tim Willoughby: "We didn't have the money we used to have and saw open-source packages could do the job of proprietary software at a fraction of the cost."

Tim Willoughby: "We didn't have the money we used to have and saw open-source packages could do the job of proprietary software at a fraction of the cost."

Mon, Jun 10, 2013, 01:00

There is an argument that budget cuts and reduced resources inspire fresh ideas; that austerity can actually drive innovation.

Sceptics, however, might think it’s the kind of wisdom that belongs in a PowerPoint presentation rather than the real world, but the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) is doing its best to prove it’s true.

The state agency that works under the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government is a product of public sector spending cuts, formed from merging the Local Government Management Services Board (LGCSB) with the Local Government Computer Services Board in 2012.

Austerity was already a way of life within the LGCSB which had seen a 10 per cent expenditure cut in 2008, a trend that that continues today with 5 per cent incremental reductions each year for the new agency.

For Tim Willoughby, the assistant chief executive who oversees technology deployments central to the LGMA’s remit, ever-decreasing funds prompted a change in mindset. A long-standing relationship with Microsoft came to an end in 2008 and he’s led an open-source strategy ever since.

“We didn’t have the money we used to have and saw that open-source packages could do the job of proprietary software at a fraction of the cost, with the added benefits of more openness and flexibility,” he says.

Open-source software tools have allowed communities of developers to modify code and share their enhancements for decades. More recently, there have been a growing number of commercially available software packages from blue-chip vendors that combine open source with enterprise support services. It’s the best of both worlds, according to Willoughby, opening the doors for a new wave of innovation.

Local authorities are encouraged to leverage the LGMA’s open-source technology platforms, sharing IT and applications out of centrally-hosted locations rather than spend money building their own. It is a relationship that has gained momentum with enforced budget cuts and consolidation that will eventually see the number of authorities fall from 34 to 31.

Citizen interactions is an example of what can be achieved, a web site where citizens can alert local authorities about issues such as broken street lights or leaking drains. Still in development, it uses open-source software including a Sugar CRM product.

“We are free to alter the code and redistribute it back to the collective,” says Willoughby. “It’s hosted by South Dublin Council, but subsequent development was carried out by Cork. They passed it on to Limerick who added features before passing it on to Meath who are making further changes.”

The rationale is that it takes an individual to kick-start a project, but real innovation only gathers pace when it’s handed over to a collective who can speed up the development and advance the functionality.

Sugar CRM will also be used to manage citizen interactions in another project, a 300-people call centre set up to support the household charge payments.

“If we’d gone with one of the big players like Microsoft or Oracle, 300 licences would have cost a lot of money. We use the Sugar CRM Community Edition, which is free to download and free to change,” says Willoughby.

The technology might have evolved but the biggest obstacle to public sector innovation remains culture change. Failure to take disparate groups of people on the same journey has undone a number of public sector IT projects, so creating a collective out of local authorities that were set up to be autonomous was always going to be a challenge.

Exploring ways around it, the LGMA has been working with DERI (the Digital Enterprise Research Institute) in NUI Galway, using linked open-data technology to provide a bridge between the different councils and authorities.

“It gives authorities a middle ground where they can share data while still retaining their different cultures,” explains Willoughby.

Turning data into something useful will ultimately depend on the quality of the information that’s input by the authorities. Willoughby fully expects a few issues as systems evolve, but doesn’t believe it should be a barrier for moving the project forward.

“There is a danger of poor data and people jumping on anomalies that risk becoming the rules. We have to be careful. But by putting data out there and having more eyes look at it there will be an opportunity to improve the quality.”

After a few false starts, Willoughby believes Ireland is on the cusp of real transformation in the public sector because of advances in technology. Quoting Prof Jane Fountain, an American political scientist and technology theorist, he said technology to date hasn’t altered government; it’s merely replicated the problems on the web. He expects open standards and better data integration to facilitate real change.

Business intelligence
The LGMA is busy building virtual teams that work across physical boundaries; leveraging economies of scale by centralising local government functions such as payroll and procurement in a shared services model. Where once there were 34 servers to host each authority’s email, for example, there’s now just one residing in the LGMA data centre.

Smarter business intelligence is another benefit of pooled systems, making it easier for the public sector to benchmark and improve performance. Built by the LGCSB in 2006, eReturns is an application that enables LGMA to extract data from multiple citizen touch points to generate reports that give central government a statistical view of local government activity.

“It’s currently published annually in book form, but we’re working with DERI to produce it as dynamic data sets that you can drill down into. You could get the data immediately and start to use it,” says Willoughby.

Whether it’s an overview of the number of books borrowed in the library system or the efficiency of the different regional planning systems, there is the potential for government to make more informed policy decisions based on accurate and up-to-date information.

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