OTTAWA – Provincial organizations are at the forefront of the movement to consolidate redundant back-office systems into a single shared service infrastructure, said a group of panelists at a GTEC roundtable

“What we’re doing with shared services is relieving departments and ministries of the need to fuss with the plumbing and worry about all those back-office systems, so they can focus on things like serving citizens, serving doctors, making life better for educators, and so on,” said B.C. CIO Dave Nikolejsin.

Shared Services B.C., he said, has a combination of external, voluntary clients along with those within government who are now required to work with this agency. The latter group includes 30,000 provincial government employees across 19 ministries, dealing with areas such as procurement and supply, strategic acquisitions and intellectual property, payroll and corporate accounting. Shared Services B.C. has more than 1,200 employees and does upward of $700 million worth of business annually. By next year, Nikolejsin said, this operation should be self-sufficient, sustained on a cost-recovery basis, with rates and charge-backs reflecting ever-improving standards of quality.

“We need to be recognized experts in the technology-client space,” he said, referring to a steady process of creating common hardware and software platforms in offices across the province. “Now that we’ve done the workstation refresh and have that common, lock-down environment, we can deal with viruses and recalls very quickly,” he said. “Now that we’ve got all those things in one place – the combination of networks, desktops and so on – we need to think about how we bundle those services and deliver turnkey integrated services for our customers.”

According to the panelists, which, along with Nikolejsin included CIOs from Alberta and New Brunswick, if provincial government agencies ever jealously guarded their bureaucratic boundaries, those days are long gone. A workforce stretched thin has been welcoming the potential of information and communications technology to provide efficient, inexpensive services that readily cross those boundaries. The result has been a dramatic flattening of the hierarchies once found in all kinds of organizations and a steady centralization of many government activities.

This trend has been especially pronounced within Canadian provincial jurisdictions, which have traditionally delivered a wide range of services across many different departments, often overlapping with municipal and federal responsibilities at the same time. Since such activities could easily be duplicated from one department to another, provincial administrators have increasingly emphasized the value of shared services as a way of addressing redundancies and reducing costs.

As for the lessons that have been learned since Shared Services B.C. started in 2003, Nikolejsin stressed the importance of an appropriate management model for this diverse collection of shared services.

“It is the only thing that really will ensure success, to have a governance structure that has the longevity to deal with the hard issues you will continue to encounter,” he concluded.

David Bass, his counterpart in Alberta, echoed that view. His province’s initiative – called Service Alberta – bears many similarities to B.C.’s.

Bass said it is moving in new directions that call for flexible and decisive governance.

“We have a number of ministries that are working with service providers within their sector to look at better ways to deliver programs and the services that are required,” he said. “They’re looking at how they can better share information, share applications, and share practices, so they can deliver to one citizen in a consistent manner.”

He said health and education are two areas where this approach has reaped the most outstanding benefits, often by integrating the work of municipal and federal levels of government. Bass agreed there should also be a unified government portal which can meet all of the citizen’s needs.

Danny Keizer, CIO for New Brunswick, offered a slightly different perspective.

Service New Brunswick, the province’s shared services program, dates back to the mid-1990s, when information and communications technologies were not as well developed as they are now.

He also said the structure of this program has not changed significantly in recent years, as it had in the other two provinces.

In contrast to Alberta and B.C., New Brunswick does not mandate the use of its shared services within government.

“That means the business case is very important to us, in terms of people wanting to use our service,” said Keizer.

Nevertheless, Service New Brunswick processes more than 4.5 million transactions annually, providing hundreds of different services across the province through offices, by telephone, or on-line. It also maintains the province’s survey and topographical mapping systems, as well as providing some 16 municipalities with economies of scale for such corporate functions as storing and retrieving forms.

Bass acknowledged the importance to Service Alberta of using a corporate paradigm to shape how some shared services would be delivered. But he insisted that like those services, the determination of that delivery should cut across the lines of any existing hierarchy.

“Implementing shared services is really a change initiative, it’s not a technology or an organizational initiative,” he said. “It requires strong, senior-level executive support, starting at the highest political level. They need to be able to see value early and throughout the process of the implementation.”

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