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Reduce, re-use, recycle - the power of cloud-based collaboration
Beating fraud and saving fresh fruit from landfill are just some of the benefits made possible by inter-organisation tie-ups in the cloud
Necessity is the mother of invention which bears out in the public sector’s use of the cloud. Where most private companies have yet to fathom the possibilities of a freer infrastructure for connecting with other businesses in unprecedented ways, local authorities are just getting on with it – because it’s the only way they can beat the budget cuts and still deliver improved performance.
Revelling in the new experience of leading the way through technological innovation, the public sector has much to teach other organisations about the broader potential of cloud computing.
Northgate Public Services is one of the IT service providers facilitating innovation in the sector. Director of business services at the company Alan Powell points to a new national system that has been rolled out this year for managing the Blue Badge motoring and parking scheme for people with disabilities.
Previously, the scheme was managed by councils at a local level, using manually written cards that did not carry a photo, rendering the system vulnerable to fraud. The new system provides a single central database of Blue Badge holders and applicants. The software, which went live at the beginning of this year, was developed and hosted by Northgate using Oracle Application Express, a rapid development tool for web applications based on the Oracle database.
The software is run out of Northgate’s secure public sector data centre. Local authorities can get application interfaces (APIs) from Northgate which allow them to integrate the Blue Badge system with their existing customer relationship management (CRM) systems, or they can choose to let Northgate manage everything for them – including associated business processes.
“It’s essentially SaaS [software as a service] with BPAS [business process as a service] elements to it,” Powell explains. Behind the system is an efficient fulfilment engine which prints the personalised badges once an application has been approved. Local authorities can apply on behalf of individuals, and the public can also apply online direct.
The benefits of the new national system are that it is fully connected, providing transparency and easy data-sharing across regional boundaries. It also provides greater controls and richer functionality, which the Government hopes will stamp out fraud. The fact that the system is hosted in the cloud means that logistical barriers that have hampered inter-authority collaboration in the past have been addressed. More poignantly for the public sector, this has all been possible without the need for any party to invest in new infrastructure.
Says Powell, “We came up with a model that satisfied the Government’s plans for the public sector cloud, provided a single solution into which all local authorities could connect, and which allowed for self-service capability - another Government target.”
Northgate is traditionally known as a provider of council tax and benefits systems, systems that have typically been run on the given authority’s premises. As cloud computing has grown legs, Northgate began to see potential to save cash-strapped public sector organisations from reinventing the wheel each time they wanted to improve their capabilities to meet Government targets.
“There are no infrastructure costs, no software licence or maintenance costs. It is all done at our own cost and risk, a model the Government is keen on,” Powell notes. “The Blue Badge model is costed entirely based on transactions.” This in turn provides an inherent incentive for councils to reduce fraud, he adds.
By offering to manage associated business processes as part of the solution, Northgate has created additional value for customers. “If a local authority has a backlog of applications for new badges, for example, we can step in and act for them - to process the backlog and help them catch up, ensuring a better service to the public,” he explains. “This has proved very compelling.” Four months on and more than 100 local authorities are using the shared cloud platform.