A bigger mobile picture

As well as delivering efficiency savings, flexible working has the potential to deliver a better work life balance for local government workers. GT magazine talks to Neil Prior, head of Local Government Futures Forum at O2, about sharing its own flexible working experiences, and about its recent research, which examined the wider role of IT as an enabler for change.The rise of the smartphone means people are becoming more comfortable with the everyday use of mobile data, which presents both opportunities and challenges for local government.

According to research, there are around 1.1 million local government employees that are planning to 'go mobile' in the next couple of years, and by 2015, it is expected that 65 per cent will have ability to work flexibly.

O2's Joined Up People offering, part of the Joined up Business vision,aims to prepare and equip local government in the use of ICT to enable  and capitalise on the positive potential flexible working can provide. With Joined up People, O2 now provides organisations with the infrastructure, consulting and services to enable all types of  workforces to increase productivity, reduce costs and maximize competitiveness through flexible working.

Neil Prior, Head of Local Government Futures Forum, explains: "Joined Up People is about building on the mobile heritage that O2 has, and adding more relevance to our customers. Flexible working can really help local authorities, allowing part time and mobile workforces to be more productive, as well as delivering efficiency savings, our own experiences are enabling employees to achieve a better worklife balance."

Futures Forum
In order to make it work, a fundamental shift in attitudes is required, and the working practices needed to support it. Last year, O2's Local Government Futures Forum carried out focus groups with local authorities across the UK. It racked up nearly 500 hours insight, from over 150 senior local government leaders and professionals, understanding aspirations for IT to deliver better services and enable transformation. Prior talks about how the research came about, and some of its conclusions:

"By starting with the insight, you can then work out what the questions, and indeed some of the answers, are.

“The research concluded that IT departments have to take centre stage in this transformation. They have to become centres of excellence within their organisation.”

ICT can really evolve local government into the 21st century making them more agile and focused.  The Futures Forum research uncovered the extent of flexible working practices currently in use. Prior states: " We have learned that local authorities are using flexible working practices, but not to the scale that chief executives would like to see.”

"There is a desire to roll these out organisation-wide, but the reality is that it they only exist in small pockets. Individual departments have tended to do their own thing, in many cases independent of the IT function."

Another obstacle to overcome in adopting flexible working practices is an underlying mistrust and fear of letting people work from home, from employees at all levels. Prior points out:

"There are ingrained working practices to overcome. Employees that have worked at a local authority for 25 years have always worked in a certain way and could be resistant to change. Also, with the current cutbacks, there is individual fear. People are probably thinking "What does this mean for me? Do I need to be seen to keep and protect my job?".

The focus on flexible working raises wider questions for local government and how ICT can not only transform systems and process but also radically change the role inside the organisation and the way it is used by its customers. An example of how O2's engagement with local government that goes far beyond technology is in its consultancy work with a Borough Council's IT management team. It has been appointed to help them develop a more effective voice internally.

Prior explains: "In this instance, it isn't about mobile phones, or broadband. It’s about turning functional managers into business leaders."

According to Prior, this comes down to viewing areas like flexible working through new eyes: "New leadership principles should be about empowering people to do their work, and not having to see them physically to know they are doing a good job. Measuring performance is one key to this."

Prior, who is a homeworker himself, spends approximately two days a week at the HQ in Slough. His role is based on meeting a number of Key Performance Indicators. He says: "I’m clear in what my role is, I’m clear in how I report back, and crucially, I am trusted to get on and do the job."

It is widely recognised that when an employee achieves a work-life balance that suits them, they work more efficiently, become more committed to their organisation and are less likely to fall ill as a result of stress.

Prior makes the point: "By giving people the tools they need to work flexibly or remotely, you give them the opportunity to create a better work life balance. Our mobile and flexible workers report mentioned that a 100 per cent better work/life balance had been achieved"

As for efficiencies, the benefits of a flexible working strategy are more easily quantified. Prior states: "We have essentially taken three offices at Slough, reducing desk space by 550 desks, and reducing costs by £3m a year. We have devised that an average team of eight people can save £30,000 per year, just by using things like group conference, Office Communicator (desktop sharing software). These savings are coming from travel, sustenance etc."

Service Experience
Experience sharing and consultation is key to O2's approach in helping local government improve customer service. It runs a series of meet the expert events, where local government directors and heads of service get the opportunity to discuss how O2's own world-class customer service experiences could be applied the local government sector.

Social networking is just one example of where local government could learn from O2's approach. As an organisation, O2 offers customer support through its social media channels and is encouraging councils to learn from its experiences.

Prior elaborates: "It's great that councils are developing a social media presence through Twitter and Facebook, but interaction with customers is a two way street. It's important that councils learn what is being said about them. Are customers complaining about the service they receive?
"If someone says, on Twitter, for instance, "I can't get my iPhone to work", or "there's no coverage", we are able to respond - "Have you contacted x?" or "Have you checked the coverage maps?".

Another example of collaboration and knowledge sharing is the Enterprise Leaders Programme (ELP), which aligns local government directors with the top 50 leaders within O2 in order to discuss key challenges. 

Prior explains how this works with another Borough Council: "The assistant chief executive, is leading the council's transformation programme. His goal is to build a world class organisation. We have aligned him with Ben Dowd, our business director, who himself has vast experience in building a world class sales organisation."

"They have the opportunity to network at C level and he will get access to some thinking and new ideas that he might not have had previously. The challenges that local government are facing are highlighted to Ben, so its a two-way process."

This two-way process is outlined by the fact that O2now has representation on another Council's Forward Board - a monthly meeting that comprises senior people from the council, fire service, NHS and other local stakeholders about contributing towards the regions long tmer strategy.

Local Government IT Vision
O2's relationship with local government is based on sharing expertise in order to bring value.  Prior states: "We are really starting to understand what the vision for ICT in local government is. We are trying to provide flexible partnerships that are not necessarily based on the way it’s always been, ie big outsourced contracts."

Although outsourcing is seen by some as the quick way to achieve efficiencies, recent IT project failures have made some local authoritiesskeptical about long term contracts where savings are delivered in the first year, and incrementally, the service charges increase. Prior was quick to point out O2's thinking.

" We are looking at a fresh model for ICT that is co-designed and co-produced as a partnership. Of course, we can provide outsourcing services, and that’s now part of O2's business, but our Local Government Futures Forum is all about co-design and co-production. It's about working with local government to make sure they get the flexibility they want with solutions that are relevant, and designed with them in mind."

He concluded: "This is a big year. We have a large network now in local government. We are known as an organisation that cares about local government, and it is a priority for us."