UK: Mobile Working’s Role in e-Government

A White Paper
Last Updated: 28 January 2004
Article by Simon Godfrey

In this paper Simon Godfrey highlights the enormous potential of mobile to improve service delivery. It examines issues around mobile deployment and suggests some answers. The paper does not analyse different mobile technologies ­ that has been done elsewhere ­ but illustrates why mobile e-government is not about technology, but informed business decisions.

The most likely candidates for early adoption of new mobile technologies include:

  • the police
  • social workers
  • ambulance staff
  • fire brigades
  • health and safety inspectors
  • farm and veterinary inspectors
  • rivers and waterways staff
  • small business advisors
  • Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise personnel in the field
  • housing department employees.

Why Mobile Matters

Drug dealers recently complained bitterly that their arrest by Lancashire Constabulary wasn’t fair, as they had had no warning that the police were on the way. The element of surprise was due to Airwave, the new, encrypted, digital emergency services radio system 1. Unlike the old analogue network, the unauthorised can’t eavesdrop.

This is a dramatic example of how mobile technology can be exploited to provide more efficient and effective public services. The Government recognises that mobile technologies have great potential for all kinds of public service providers. Indeed the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is developing an e-government initiative to promote mobile working in local authorities across the country. Its particular focus is the business case for mobile’s role.

The elephant trap awaiting those listed on the left, among others, is to see the Government’s 2005 deadline for e-government in terms of implementing policy and hitting targets. Being able to tick to right boxes does not automatically translate into what the Government means by ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’. On the contrary, it is possible to spend a fortune on technology without any discernible benefit - as is demonstrated lamentably often.

Mobile working’s role in e-Government

The wish-list approach to deploying mobile as part of e-government is not an option. For example, mobile access to email, might be useful to many staff, but would probably only improve the effectiveness of a few sufficiently to justify the cost. Successful mobile working means enabling government employees to do their jobs better, more easily and faster, but at a sustainable cost.

Ultimately, the UK Government will not be judged on its spending so much as what it achieved: policies are an irrelevance unless they usher in improvements. Yet the deadline is looming and integrating mobile into work processes is unchartered territory for the public sector.

There is no substitute for building a strategy based on a proper business case through careful consultation, planning, pilot schemes, on-going, accurate monitoring of costs and benefits, and the most advantageous financing. Teaming up with an experienced partner with a proven track record in all of these elements is the only way to go.

Mobile Already In Motion

Some trailblazing local councils are already experimenting with mobile working. In south London Lewisham Council¹s staff are using PDAs to report housing repairs and incidents such as graffiti appearing.

The Council’s social workers are using tablet PCs to assess the needs of elderly pensioners. They report that tablet PCs are more acceptable to pensioners than laptops as there is no physical barrier in the shape of the usual flip-up screen. The devices are also popular because staff are able to spend more time in the community rather than in the office doing paperwork.

Information is entered directly into the PC during care assessment interviews, for example, and the client reads and signs what has been inputted on the spot. This compresses the service delivery cycle. The social worker doesn’t need to go back to the office, nor get the interview typed up and the document mailed out.

Cambridge County Council is also using tablet PCs and, like Lewisham, has found that as long as they provide what staff need and make life easier for the customer/taxpayer, they are readily accepted. Ian Laughton, modernisation manager for Cambridge County Council, commented, "In our experience so far, the customers are not fazed by the technology. They like the fact that only one person is coming to ask them questions and they don't have to repeat their name and address endlessly." 2

Fujitsu’s empirical research shows that productivity of field staff with access to applications and data, and/or who can capture data on the spot can be improved by 30%. Administration is streamlined plus a mobile workforce is able to function even if it cannot get to the office due to transport failures, emergencies or poor weather conditions. Productivity is raised because mobilised staff have access to customer records, inventories and dynamic work schedules wherever and when they need them.

Council field workers have an obligation provide audit trails to comply with legislative and regulatory needs, and to protect against potential liability. This is creating a massive increase in paperwork. Council employees such as police officers, social workers and inspectors must document activity and contacts after any event. This typically means returning to the office to fill in forms, adversely affecting costs and productivity. Mobile working provides better compliance and protection as well as improved service delivery.

To Boldly Go…The Final Frontier

Another crucial element of e-government is that it should deliver joined-up services; provide an interface between local and central government, for example, in the interests of more effective operation.

Historically local councils have each delivered services in their own area, regardless of commonality with neighbouring councils. Nowadays services are normally delivered through a complex combination of voluntary, private and public agencies. This often results in duplicating effort and information, and missing out on economies of scale.

Things are about to change and again mobile potentially has a pivotal role to play. A report published in May 2003 by the New Local Government Network thinktank 3 identified a few cross-border collaborations among Britain's 500 district councils. These have been fostered by government subsidies for Pathfinder partnerships (see www.lgolpathfinder.gov.uk) and there is growing pressure for many more to follow suit. The Audit Commission is embarking on a performance assessment of district councils with one of the criteria being how well they co-operate with county councils.

Some of the 20 successful collaborations in the report go further than ‘back office services’ such as the nine councils co-operating with IT in North Yorkshire, or a joint waste disposal

company set up by Coventry and Solihull. More ambitious collaborations include the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Trust, which involves five councils, or a joint effort by Shropshire, and Telford and Wrekin local education authorities.

A main driver of this collaborative approach is to share expertise. As the areas involved become larger due to cross-border collaboration, more staff are likely to spend more time on the move. Itinerant specialists will need to work effectively wherever they are and the need for efficiency means ensuring they are not tied to a physical base to access email and other computing facilities.

Newham, which is seen in government circles as a pioneer of e-procurement, has joined forces with the councils of Tower Hamlets, Redbridge, Lewisham and Barnet to create an online London marketplace to buy goods and services from suppliers. Again, imagine if anyone who buys goods or services in the public sector could check availability and price at any time.

Money, Money, Money

There are issues to be tackled before mobile e-government becomes mainstream. One is cost. Introducing mobility demands a viable business case, to get the best bang for the public purse’s buck. Birmingham City Council has learned some hard lessons already. It provided mobile surgeries where housing repair needs could be reported. The laptops in the centres were linked to the central database by ISDN lines. The council found that costs spiralled out of control, as the centres proved popular with the public and use was heavier than expected. This might be a good instance of where the council could have set up its own wireless local area network (WLAN) to keep costs down or for downloading data via broadband or an ordinary phone line in off-peak time. It might be an opportunity to work in partnership with a company that runs WLANs on the council’s behalf.

The key to preventing the use of mobile communications and their costs getting out of control is to have a clear idea what needs to be achieved and using the most appropriate mobile technology in terms of cost as well as efficiency ­ whether that’s Bluetooth, WLAN, mobile phone/texting, PDA or laptop.

Fujitsu can run various types of wireless networks for its customers or advise on setting up the infrastructure and provide operational user support. Fujitsu can also offer terms that enables public sector organisations to finance mobile working from operational expenditure ­ without increasing opex ­ and without incurring capital expenditure (capex).

Out Of Sight…

Making the most out of mobile e-government will result in a new working culture. Some government departments are looking at deploying mobile communications as a way of reducing their office space. Presumably, if staff no longer need to be in the office regularly, there is no point in the public paying for permanent desk space.

Naturally, the issue is not as simple as arming all field staff with a WLAN-enabled laptop and a mobile phone, say, in exchange for their desk. There are vexed issues around managing a dispersed workforce with no physical focal point as well as challenges for the staff themselves. The government introduced the right to flexible working for parents with young or disabled children in April 2003. This has added urgency to exploiting mobile technologies to accommodate flexible working practices.

There is good news. A report, Is Teleworking Sustainable? has just been published 4 by the European Commission-funded Sustainable Teleworking (SusTel) project which dissects the experiences of 30 organisations that have embraced teleworking and mobile working, and reduced their office space. Practices that have made new working practices a success include providing a ‘café’ where employees can mingle with their co-workers and one of those featured even pays ‘rent’ for a working space in people’s homes.

Industrial relations must also be taken into account. Mobile could break down the barriers between previously well-defined roles. What happens if a street inspector can use a PDA to perform functions that were previously the responsibility of a housing department officer? If such situations are not managed carefully, mobility will be seen as a form of exploitation ­ using fewer staff to do more work - and therefore resisted.

Corresponding changes in management need to be made to accommodate staff that are no longer under a manager’s watchful eye. John Seddon¹s book 5, published in October 2003, offers some alternatives to what he describes as the typical Œcommand and control’ approach.

All these issues can be addressed as long as those implementing new working practices are deal with them sensitively. A good source of help and advice is the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) which can be contacted on 08457 47 47 47 or see www.acas.org.uk

As Fujitsu can demonstrate, proper consulting helps organisations explore the impact mobile working will have on staff as well as the business gains. Getting these processes right leads to high staff morale and employee retention.

Who Are You?

Think about the range of information a mobile public sector e-worker might have on their terminal ­ or what central resources they can access from that device. It could be everything from medical details to someone’s tax status. If the terminal is lost or stolen, what then? It is essential that there is some way of the user being able to prove they are who they say they are rather than the network recognising the terminal and granting access. Again, this can be worked round easily by security procedures, but only if they are built into the system from the word go.

Fujitsu has a wealth of experience in managing the integration of mobile with existing technology and applications, in a secure way, resulting from managing its own extensive mobile work force around the world. As well as manufacturing wireless devices itself, Fujitsu has partnerships with other leading mobile suppliers including Nokia and Vodafone.

In Conclusion

In government as in business the integration of mobile technologies into the very fabric of operational processes will be the next big step forward, comparable with the introduction of computers into the workplace. Mobile e-government means that each member of staff can carry their workplace with them, providing services to the public in the most efficient and effective way ever.

Implementation of e-mobile services has to be based on the business case, rather than viewed in terms of fulfilling policy directives and hitting targets. Much attention must be paid to existing applications and how they are adapted to mobile. Unless the transition is planned carefully, stitching new and old together, and making the technology simple to understand and use by the public sector worker and member of the public, there is no chance of succeeding.

The best way of deploying mobile e-government is by choosing a supplier that has a track record of working with government as well as a comprehensive grasp of emerging and existing technologies. Both are essential components if mobile is to be exploited fully by public service providers. Fujitsu Consulting offers both ­see www.uk.fujitsu.com/mobileworking for more information.

1 The emergency services new radio system is based on Tetra, a pan-European standard - see www.homeoffice.gov.uk for more details.

2 Quoted in The Guardian, Thursday June 26, 2003, by Justin Hunt

3 Crossing Boundaries, £20, NLGN, 42 Southwark St, London SE1 1UN. Tel 0207357 0051

4 For more details about the report, Is Teleworking Sustainable? and the Sustainable Teleworking (SusTel) project see www.sustel.org

5 Freedom from Command & Control ­ A Better Way to Make the Work Work by John Seddon is published by Vanguard Press ­ see www.lean-service.com

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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