Cabinet Office pushes for shared services adoption

The department's CIO, Peter Court, is striving to get more government departments jumping on the shared services bandwagon

In the Cabinet Office building on Whitehall, the modern foyer soon gives way to older tiled corridors and offices looking out onto Admiralty Arch and Horse Guards Parade. Fittingly, the department's chief information officer, Peter Court, has the task of bolting a modern way of thinking about IT onto the established way of doing things.

Recently the Cabinet Office has embraced shared back-office services under the guidance of government chief information officer John Suffolk.

Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office announced a deal with Fujitsu for a managed, converged voice and data network over IP, called "Flex", which it has offered to share with other public-sector organisations. So far, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have come on board, bringing the number of staff supported by the network to around 8,000 people.

Court explained: "There is a policy agenda here and we are offering some leadership here to move that agenda along."

It's a start, but big-name departments are conspicuous by their absence. Court admits there may be issues around existing contracts or in-house reticence. There are also issues about awareness of the service.

Court said: "The challenge is knowing what the thing is. All organisations tend to look after their own patch. I would refer to that as silo-based thinking. Increasingly the trend is networked convergence."

Court, Suffolk and the service provider Fujitsu have conducted a series of roadshows to publicise the service. It's understood that up to 70 public-sector organisations are making serious enquiries about Flex, now that they have seen Dius and ONS make their move. Even so, Court recognises it may be a year before any other big departments join the club.

Court said: "The contract is a four-year deal. During that time, the contract can be extended by a further seven years, and, the longer the deal, the more attractive the price point. So, the opportunity is for around 11 years. During that time, I would hope we would have a lot more than the current 6,000 to 8,000 we have on board at the moment."

Dius took five weeks to migrate to Flex, but it's a newly formed department without any legacy constraints. The larger, more established ONS, which took 15 months to seal the deal, might be more representative of other departments.

So what are the benefits for the Cabinet Office? Court explained to that the service is competitive and opens up opportunities for changes such as flexible working and a single sign-on for staff through the use of a USB data stick on any device. It's based on a thin-client architecture, which has a green dividend too. The service also gets cheaper, the more seats it supports.

"So, for the Cabinet Office, it's value for money from day one but, over time, the more people that join will cut my costs further, so there is an incentive in there. But I'm transparent about that to the people I talk to," said Court.

There is also a further dividend for the Cabinet Office in terms of green IT and budget costs.

As a result of the network being IP-based and allowing staff access to core systems out of the office, there is also the chance to reduce the number of PCs and introduce hotdesking. Court is currently conducting a review of the department's PC estate, so he's unsure what the final ratio of workstations to staff will be. He said that a ratio of seven desks to 10 staff is not an implausible figure, but the ratio will vary from office to office depending on the nature of each team's work.

"The technology we are adopting here for IP-based voice and data services means that anyone working from home will be able to get all their work telephone calls diverted to their home phone. It won't be until next March or April when we roll out this chunk of change but, when they get it, people will appreciate just how flexible it's going to be," said Court.