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Success in public sector transformation
One consequence of the change in Northern Ireland’s political landscape and the move to devolution was an increase in the number of government departments from six to eleven. While the move was welcomed it compounded a problem that the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) had been seeking to resolve.
There had been an earlier proposal to migrate the six original departments towards a common financial system, but with the larger structure this need became even more acute. Not only was different software in use but also some of the newly formed departments had no accounting systems of their own and needed to rely on others for delivery of financial services.
The decision was taken by the Department of Finance and Personnel to set up a financial processing centre for the whole of the NICS using a shared services model. Acknowledging the scale of the project, the Department spent over a year refining the exact requirements and preparing the way for a procurement exercise.
It’s important to understand that this was a business transformation project,” recalls John Crosby, Chief Executive Officer of Account NI, the organisation set up to run the proposed centre. “We wanted companies with the capability to manage the delivery of a project of this scale.”
The contract was won by a strategic ICT services partnership led by BT. Under the terms of the 12-year contract, BT, Accenture, and Northgate Information Solutions would work together to move the departments to a common financial system and set up a shared services centre, staffed and run by Account NI. The project was an opportunity to improve payment turnaround times, capture information that would support better planning and budgeting, and enable departments to redeploy resources to support front line services.
Centralising financial systems had the potential to deliver huge processing efficiencies and more money would be saved because it would be far easier to manage and maintain a single system. Moreover, having a single source of financial data would enable more comprehensive reporting, allowing better informed decision-making.
The objective was to deliver common processes to 11 departments with offices dispersed across the province. The programme would involve 1,300 core financial systems users together with up to 20,000 civil servants who would use the system less frequently, for example to lodge personal expense claims or procurement requests.
As well as overall control and programme management of the project, BT had responsibility for service management, training, and managing the transition from legacy systems. Accenture’s expertise was applied in the area of financial shared services and applications, while Northgate Information Solutions delivered a bulk cheque printing service and financial architecture.
Oracle financial software sits at the heart of the system, with each process supported by integrated modules. A ReadSoft scanning solution is used for invoice processing, while Cognos software has been deployed for reporting. The core infrastructure and all applications are hosted in the BT Belfast data centre, with a second BT facility providing disaster recovery facilities.
It was recognised at the outset that moving all 11 departments to a shared services model would only succeed if processes were consistent across the organisation. The decision was therefore taken to build a common footprint solution – assembled, tested, and then deployed in a series of five waves covering all NCIS departments.
The development process spanned 18 months, by which time the common footprint solution was ready for roll out. The solution was initially implemented in the Department of Finance and Personnel, the programme sponsor, followed by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
The shared services centre is staffed by 220 civil servants, and based on four functions: procure to pay, bill to cash, record to report, and a service desk. Manned by NICS staff the service desk provides the first point of contact for enquiries. Any queries of a technical nature are passed through to BT.
A big challenge was addressing the culture change aspect of the transformation. BT handled employee training through a combination of face-to-face courses – attended by more than 5,000 employees over a period of 18 months – and a self-service e-learning programme. As each department went live, BT provided people on the ground with just-in-time support to ease the transition.
Underpinned by the new financial system implemented by BT, Account NI has led the way in developing and providing procurement, finance, and accounting solutions for all Northern Ireland Civil Service Departments: not only saving money but also delivering an improved service.
The scale and complexity of the project called for BT to devise and build a development and implementation plan that would allow the different departments and agencies to transition from the old systems and adopt the new without service interruption – a challenge that was successfully met.
“If we were doing it again we would do the roll out exactly the same way, it was a great success,” confirms John Crosby. “It is not a system that could have ever been assembled piecemeal. The model BT used, with the common footprint, worked really well.”
The culture change aspect, which has been the downfall of many large-scale transformation projects, was also managed effectively thanks to the extensive BT training programme. “Training was one of the biggest successes,” continues John Crosby, “and because it’s a single system it means that people are much more flexible. They can change departments without having to retrain.”
For suppliers, the new system is a marked improvement because all invoices now go to the same place and are processed in a consistent way. This makes it more straightforward for suppliers to engage with government, while central visibility of all purchasing makes it possible for Account NI to review spending and improve procurement efficiency.
While it is too soon to reap all the rewards of the common system in terms of cost-savings and efficiencies, John Crosby has no doubt that Account NI will deliver assured long-term gains. “The full benefits will take time to work through the system,” he says. “But we now have something that is consistent and adaptable and provides a great foundation for reacting to any changes that might happen in the future.”
- Design, implementation and support of a new financial system in association with Accenture and Northgate Information Solutions
- Professional Services including project management, programme management, and face-to-face and online customer training
- Service management, together with data centre hosting and disaster recovery services