Funding holds back public sector mobile working

Cash-strapped councils restricted to small-scale pilots...
Written by Andy McCue, Contributor

Cash-strapped councils restricted to small-scale pilots...

Lack of funding and poor business cases are hindering the adoption of mobile working technologies among local authorities and other public sector bodies, according to experts.

Recent research by Kable predicts UK public sector expenditure on mobile workers will grow from just under £900m in 2005 to £4.3bn over the next 10 years - primarily in local government and healthcare. But many rollouts are struggling to get beyond the pilot stage.

Funding is one of the key issues. Project Nomad was set up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to help local authorities develop mobile schemes by providing a central resource to co-ordinate initiatives and share best practice.

But Nomad has only received £4m funding, which means cash-strapped councils are struggling to justify a business case for mobile working projects beyond very small scale pilots.

Peter Marsden, programme manager at Nomad, said: "Funding is an issue. One of the main barriers at the moment is the business case to get the funding. In the last three years we have seen a significant maturity in the market. But what we haven't seen yet is mass rollouts."

One council that has been proactive in this area is Dundee City Council - Scotland's fourth largest local authority. Dundee started three-and-a-half years ago with £25,000 of funding from the Scottish Executive by rolling out mobile devices to 12 social justice staff.

Now there are 10 staff in the council's revenue and benefits department who use mobile devices for liaison and arrears collection work, which involves home visits, along with staff in child protection and trading standards.

Ged Bell, IT implementation manager at Dundee City Council, said the tablet devices have been part of a number of initiatives that have helped increase the revenue and benefits collection rate from 87 per cent to 91 per cent. It means officers now have the latest up-to-date information on each case.

Bell said: "Officers now take these devices into homes. Before, we used to find the client would dispute what stage of the collection process they were at and we would have to go back to the office to check and make another appointment."

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One of the keys to Dundee's mobile rollout is a thin-client architecture, which has yielded huge savings on infrastructure and support. It addresses the question of information security because the mobile device is "dumb" and doesn't store any data itself, said Bell.

The choice of mobile device is also important. Bell said: "The reason for a tablet device is the full screen. We don't want to repackage and redesign applications for smaller screens."

Bell's advice for other local authorities looking at mobile working is to make it part of wider strategy. "It has to be long term and sustainable," he said.

Nomad's Marsden agrees: "Don't do low-cost investment. Take it seriously."

Nomad is due to publish the findings of a report into progress on the adoption of mobile working technology in the public sector in the next couple of months, which Marsden claims has identified some successful mobile working projects across about a dozen local authorities.

For some, the barriers have also been the capability of the mobile technology in terms of functionality and things like battery life. But mobile vendors claim this is now changing.

Ed Williams, head of data strategy at T-Mobile UK, said: "I think we are at the tipping point in terms of the technology."

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