Share with caution

Phil Greenwood, director at Iron Mountain, explains why sharing is not always caring in local government.

A report by the Local Government Association (LGA) last year found that shared services are so embedded across local authorities that they have become standard practice. The LGA's Shared Services Map shows that the vast majority of councils are working together in some form to save money.

There are over 400 local authorities in the UK and each are charged with delivering around 800 services, including public transport, local amenities, education, social services and roads maintenance, among many others. With the pressure on councils to improve services , increase collaboration and save money, shared services have become a popular reform for public agencies and the scheme has so far saved UK tax payers half a billion pounds.

The hope is to reduce overheads and increase efficiency by consolidating support services like HR, finance and procurement, as well as back office services and customer services, the maintenance of databases for children and young people, public health services, and community information systems. However, results from a recent survey from Iron Mountain suggest that, despite the considerable benefits across many functional areas, sharing services across neighbouring authorities might not deliver the greatest advantages for information management and security.

Shared concerns

New research from Iron Mountain around information management in the UK local authorities and beyond shows that the benefits of sharing are questioned by many frontline information professionals, with concerns about information loss highlighted by almost half (49 per cent) of those surveyed.

We found that around nine in 10 local authorities (92 per cent) currently share or plan to share some of their services with neighbouring local authorities. Just under half (44 per cent) of records and information management (RIM) staff welcome the greater efficiencies and best practice that come from shared services.

However, we found that concerns exist among information professionals and their managers over whether sharing services delivers key information management benefits such as reduced workload, improved performance, mutual support between professionals or effective integration of information across authorities. In fact, in each case only around one in three of the RIM professionals surveyed expect to experience such benefits. More senior business leaders, on the other hand, are inclined to view the achievement of these benefits more optimistically.

Integration risks

One of the main concerns highlighted by the research is that the need to move information between organisations places it at greater risk of loss or exposure, with almost half (49 per cent) of records and information managers, and a third of business leaders believing this is an issue.

Worries exist about the lack of accountability, or too many points of accountability, that can make it impossible to maintain a continuous and secure chain of custody as information moves between local councils sharing services. Such a situation could result from different local authorities and their partners taking different approaches to information storage and security.

Impact of inconsistency

Every organisation has unique business challenges and goals, and good information governance should address the specific information requirements of that organisation. However, the survey reveals that an inconsistent approach to information management, with different local authorities dealing with information in different ways, is one of the greatest challenges of sharing services. Around a third of respondents agreed that the differing information security approaches are potentially exposing information to risk.

We also found that three quarters (74 per cent) of respondents agree that a lack of budget and skills is holding back their ability to make the most of their information. As a result, a third (34 per cent) of information professionals want their organisation to decide how best to manage its information. Roughly the same number (33 per cent) would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with records and information managers in other local authorities, but on their own terms, through networking and the sharing of ideas and best practice.

Tips for a shared future

Local authorities clearly recognise the importance of good information management and are keen to manage information effectively and securely. But what actions can local authorities take to improve the outcomes for shared services projects by overcoming the obstacles outlined above?

Our research suggests that the risk of a security breach and loss of information is increasing. Any resulting reputational damage would be extremely unwelcome for councils should the worst happen, and managers are therefore urged to take into account the following best practice.

  • Conduct an audit: In order to improve the way your organisation handles information, you need to be aware of existing governance policies and processes.
  • Measure change: Always measure the "before/after" of any change you make - no matter how small. Benchmark these changes against KPIs such as efficiency.
  • Take control: Lead by example by demonstrating the importance of good information management, particularly when it comes to reducing risk. Remind your team to log where documents are at all times, keep sensitive information secure, change passwords and lock computers.
  • Raise awareness of success: Efficient processes and information security are critical to your and your council's reputations. When you make improvements, spread the word.

Overcoming the inherent barriers that hold shared services back is the key to realising the vision of shared services in the public sector. By empowering managers to take control of the information they handle, a continuous chain of information custody can be created that will drive cultural change and, ultimately, reduce information risk.