It is 10 years since the government committed to an ambitious shared services strategy. CSW reports on a roundtable that discussed progress and sought to identify challenges ahead
Wind back your clock by a decade. The suits have a slimmer cut, while handbags are more expansive than nowadays. The general standard of business dress is smarter, and there isn’t a modern mullet in sight.
We’re in the days of the Civil Service Reform Plan, with its promise to drive efficiency, reduce cost and create a leaner, meaner public sector. There’s a feeling that technology is the answer to pretty much every problem. If we harness its power, we can deliver change.
That was the view at the heart of the government’s ambitious shared services strategy. It was launched in December 2012, with a promise to “radically improve efficiency across departments and save the taxpayer up to half a billion [pounds] a year”.
As the then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said: “Sharing services simply makes sense. There is absolutely no need for departments and arm’s-length bodies to have their own back-office functions, and duplicate efforts, when they can be delivered more efficiently by sharing services and expertise. We want sharing services to become the norm.”
Fast forward to the present day and you’ll be well-placed to see how the strategy has fared and been developed. The last decade has brought procurement initiatives like Shared Services Connected Limited (SSCL – a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and IT services provider Sopra Steria) and, despite early challenges with the strategy, there is now clear progress. This progress has accelerated over the last two years, with the publication of a updated strategy which created five clusters that will focus the shared services effort with a single system offering interoperability across the whole civil service.
Three of these clusters are already operating a shared service system and two are in the process of procuring such a system. There is also commitment to even greater transformation once the clusters of shared service centres go live in 2028 – with an estimated overall saving of around £1.8bn over the next 15 years. It is a good moment to gather a group of experts together and assess progress, while being honest about the challenges lying ahead – which is precisely what happened at a recent CSW roundtable event, sponsored by SSCL.
A good beginning
Mike Driver, independent chair of SSCL and a former director general in the Ministry of Justice, kicked things off with a positive assessment of the last decade. “Confidence and trust in shared services has grown across government,” he said. “It seems as if people are much more engaged with the process of change and feel as if they’re driving something forward.”
That sense of forward progress was echoed by the civil servants in the room, who felt the cluster approach struck the right balance between the early ambition of the 2012 shared services strategy and a realistic, achievable scale of cooperation. For example, Dianne Jeans, director of group corporate services strategy and transformation at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said she felt the clusters are proving effective. “People aren’t unpicking the process and doing their own thing, but pulling together. The clusters are small enough to be manageable, but large enough to build momentum.”
Key to this has been the gradual move to standardisation and convergence across departments and clusters – a point made by Jeannie Gillanders, head of HR functional strategy in the Cabinet Office, and echoed by her colleague Nathan Moores, the department’s shared services strategy director. He said there had been “hard-won ground” in some areas of government to develop shared services across departments and arm’s-length bodies, adding: “We now need to share that learning more widely.”
As these comments attest, there is much to cheer a time-travelling shared services enthusiast visiting from the heady days of 2012. But the job is by no means completed.
The path ahead
To get a sense of the scale of the task, consider this: the Cabinet Office has outlined 24 key processes that lie at the heart of shared services across the five clusters. According to Nathan Moores, these “…unpack into 600-plus processes, creating one way of doing things across the whole civil service for the first time”.
It’s worth rereading that statement if you’re in any doubt about the business transformation necessitated by shared services; and the opportunity and challenge presented by the 2012 shared services strategy: to transform business functions across Whitehall and beyond, as well as leverage the power of the technology to drive fundamental organisational change.
“Shared services isn’t just about the transactional stuff that happens every day, usually around HR and finance,” said Sarah Homer, director general group chief operating officer at Defra. “It can help us do so much more – in fact, it’s already doing so in Defra by enabling common ways of working across the department and our arm’s-length bodies.”
To enable this change, there needs to be plenty of careful work around process and data change – Moores noted that one key factor in future success would be for “everyone to adopt the new data standards and processes at departmental and supplier level”.
Embracing these opportunities requires more than just a change of business processes. As Andrew Pattison, finance director operations and shared services at the Home Office, noted: “I think there is still a cultural shift [needed] in terms of the way of working in the civil service. We are having interesting conversations about the future of finance and HR in our cluster, aside from detailed process mapping, but we’re quite early in those conversations.”
This cultural shift can be harder to achieve in the public sector than in the commercial world, where change of this scale is often mandated rather than pursued by negotiation. “The private sector has expertise in delivering change through technology,” said Will Richardson, managing director of Simplex Consulting. With that in mind, he suggested procurements could be less narrow in requiring previous public sector experience, so as to make better use of commercial experience and insight.
Participants also highlighted a challenge around resources – both financial and human. Jeans noted that securing continued funding would be vital to realise the full potential of shared services, rather than ending up “with no business change – just a new system but no transformation”.
Other participants noted that bringing in the right people resources and experience would be a key focus as the clusters move forward with their plans. “The challenge for the next six to 12 months is resourcing these programmes across clusters,” Homer said. “We’re all looking for the same skills and capability at the same time. That’s a lot of pull on the market.”
Another challenge is to ensure that teams have the right direction and support from the top. “You definitely need good leadership to deliver successful shared services,” Pattison said. “There are lots of external factors [to contend with], so you need capability to deliver because the prize is so big.”
Delivering the prize
That prize isn’t just to do with the estimated cost savings, nor the enhanced efficiencies – though both are to be desired, naturally. Shared services also yield plenty of big data, which can in turn be mined to drive business improvement – by delivering real-time reporting, for example, that saves staff time and enhances business insight.
And that’s just the start, as Kenny Morris, managing director at SSCL Government, made plain: “We need to continue innovating even as we deliver the current strategy. The shared services strategy has already saved the government hundreds of millions of pounds and enhanced the user experience. Now, we need to carry on finding new ways to make government work even better through the programme.”
Few would deny the laudability of this aim. Neither would they question the scale of the task. Richardson advised that shared service leaders focus on achieving results iteratively rather than trying to realise the full task at once. “Eating the elephant all in one go is a habit I observe in government, rather than trying to break it up into little bits. A more agile and iterative process to delivery may yield better results.”
A focus on delivering regular iterative change may also help to address another challenge observed by Homer: “It is hard to hold to a common mission in government over 10 to 15 years. Shared services is like Heineken – it reaches the parts other things don’t. If it goes wrong, it affects everyone and is very visible.”
Alongside this, there is the backdrop of significant uncertainty for the government in the years since the 2012 shared services strategy was published: Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and industrial action, to name a few contributors.
Despite this context, the discussion was positive – those around the table recognised how far the shared services agenda had come, and were ready to meet the challenges ahead. Pattison said such challenges are part and parcel of running the country: “There is always something going on. We need to make sure we can go on delivering, even when the difficulties mount.”
Consider how different the world of 2023 is from the one of 2013 and the staying power of shared services is plain to see. It’ll take more than a few changes of fashion and a global pandemic to knock it off course.