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Can Blaenavon shift from coal to shared services?

Gill Hitchcock Published 27 February 2013

A resource centre shared by Torfaen and Monmouthshire councils and Gwent police is unique in Wales. But a lack of ICT skills and evidence of savings could hold it back. Gill Hitchcock reports.


In the nineteenth century Blaenavon led the world as a producer of iron, coal and steel. But with its mining heydays behind it, could the south Wales former mining town be shaping up to be a technology leader by hosting the country's first public sector shared resource service (SRS)?

The SRS began in 2010 when Torfaen and Monmouthshire councils were moving from outdated shared premises and needed new data centre facilities. Coincidentally, Gwent police was facing a similar issue and following discussions between council and constabulary chiefs, the SRS project was agreed.

"At a similar time, the NHS for Wales was looking for a data hall provision, so a tender was put out," says Matt Lewis, the SRS chief operating officer. "Torfaen bid for that tender, won it and a data hall was put in for the NHS as well. So the physical provision in Blaenavon is four data halls for NHS Wales, education, local government and the police."

Among the other drivers for the project is the Welsh government's ICT Strategy for Public Sector in Wales published in 2011. It proposes the migration of the organisational diversity of ICT across Wales to a corporate arrangement that will meet the requirements of current and future public services. This includes collaborating and integrating services across multiple public sector organisations; working nationally as the preferred option, regionally where national is not appropriate and locally only as a last resort.

Shared leadership is key

Lewis says that a under a 'memorandum of understanding' signed by the three partners, Torfaen takes the lead on HR services and employs the single IT team; Monmouthshire leads on financials; and Gwent police on procurement. Frameworks and other contracts are signed once for the three, and are typically open to other authorities to use.

Lewis explains that over the next 3-6 months the SRS will be tendering for a storage and disaster recovery capability, and anticipates a saving of 10-15% against purchasing as three separate organisations.

In terms of existing contracts, he tries to use Value Wales and for the police, Sprint II, before setting up new agreements. Last year the SRS set up a desktop framework with HP through Value Wales; its network frameworks include suppliers Intrinsic and BTI Net; and its servers come from a range of companies: Dell, HP, NetApps and Cisco so that the SRS "doesn't put all its eggs in one basket".

Lewis says that the integrated IT team is flexing resources backwards and forwards across all the authorities according to demand, and cutting costs and using staff to greater potential: "We have been able to free people up to work across a far wider breadth of organisations and projects than they would have been exposed to in their own organisations."

Before taking up the challenge of running the SRS three years ago, Lewis worked in the private sector for more than 20 years, including a stint running the IT operations of a chemical manufacturer.

"I think one of the biggest differences between the private and public sectors is that with a public sector framework, whatever the result, there is no negotiation after a framework has been agreed," Lewis claims. "The vendor that wins that particular framework is the one you stick with. So you will have a mix and match of equipment, because different vendors win different frameworks."

In December 2012 the three published a revised SRS strategy for 2012-15 setting out aims including enabling savings through service integration and business process alignment. "So when we look at a project for storage, or for a new system, or a change in a system, the de facto position is always let's look and see what the other authorities have got and if can bring things together," says Lewis.

Taking a view from the front line

The SRS board includes directors of the three organisations, along with Gwyn Thomas, the Welsh government's CIO and Lewis says: "All the heads of departments are involved in in-putting into our SRS strategy, so that we know what they are thinking and where they want to go with their service areas.

"And what we also do is on a quarterly basis is to run what we call 'front line forums', so we will have people who could be collecting refuse, special constables, or customer care staff... and get a feel for what is actually happening out in the front facing world to make sure we are delivering for them as well as the heads of departments."

According to the SRS strategy, the project will be at the forefront of the implementation of a Wales cloud. The intention is to work with a number of vendors to implement solutions that allow multiple organisations to connect to and use ICT services from a secure and cost-effective cloud solution.

"I think it's quite embryonic at the moment," says Lewis. "There is a desire to look at the Cwmwl Cymru, which is Welsh for public cloud. There is an initial design being done, and all public sector bodies in Wales have had a chance to input into that. So there is a kind of an initial design of how it could fit together and how it would work; and I guess the next stage is actually breathing some life into that." Leading Cwmwl Cymru is Gary Bullock, chief technology officer for the Welsh government.

Lewis has been looking to the G-Cloud for inspiration and says that visits to Microsoft in Reading have indicated that this could be ideal for Wales. "You can get access to things like a dynamic client, certain applications and software for £30-£60 per month per user," he adds.

In terms of savings so far, Lewis says that Gwent police has saved just short of £1.6m over the three years; a small sum compared to the £32m budget reduction the force is required to make by 2015.

Lewis says that the councils' savings are "very difficult to calculate", but estimates the figures are "down in the low hundreds of thousands". He explains that a number of recent projects has tripled the amount of hardware and data centre capacity managed by the SRS, while staffing levels has remained constant. "When you look at what the cost would have been to increase staffing to look after all the additional equipment, then you could start to say it's about cost avoidance," he adds.

Shortage of networking talent

Asked about the main challenges facing the SRS, Lewis mentions resistance to change, and the financial situation, but says that the biggest headache is a shortage of ICT skills, particularly networking. "There is such a lack of Cisco-type skills in general," laments Lewis, who has been in talks with the BSC about a scheme to develop the skills of people outside IT who may be in mid or late career and still have a lot to offer.

The SRS strategy predicts that over the coming months and years more organisations will join the project, as implementation plans are fleshed out for delivering the CIO for Wales' Welsh Public Sector Data Centre Strategy aim of slashing the number of datacentres from 80 to just two.

Lewis says that two or three organisations are already interested in using the data centre or the integrated IT team, but that it would be "unfair" to name them at this stage.

"What we don't want to go is take on something that is beyond the current resource capability. I don't want to give anybody the illusion that we can take over an authority, that is absolutely not what this is about," he explains.

"This about sharing resource and getting the best out of people, trying to save organisations money, trying to make the best of the IT provision that they have got. And it's an open model."

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