Once in a Generation: a Shared Services Platform for Northern Ireland public sector

Darren Lemon, eir Business NI General Manager, talks to Owen McQuade of Agenda NI about working together with the Northern Ireland public sector on ICT progress, the potential for local government to build on lessons from reform within the Civil Service and the real opportunities for a shared service platform.


Realising the Shared Service Opportunity

In Darren Lemon’s view, eir’s Northern Ireland business has made “good strong progress” over the last year, allowing for continued investment into the network to support ongoing Government transformation initiatives.

 “We completed the roll-out of the c2k network – in partnership with Capita – to all 1,200 schools in Northern Ireland,” Lemon comments.  “It’s really important to have a high bandwidth, modern, high capacity network for schools that allows them to be innovative and creative and to utilise the power of digital services in teaching and learning.  We’re very proud of that project.”


eir also finished the implementation of a large scale IP telephony project for 21,000 civil servants in Northern Ireland built on the managed network that it already provides for government. The contract modernises the telephony across the Civil Service, enabling it to move away from an ageing and almost redundant system and delivering very real benefits and strategic gains.

“It was a three year roll-out and that’s delivering a whole raft of additional value in terms of the other services that it provides,” Lemon says. “You can see the availability and the status of anyone across the estate.  You can basically sit down behind a telephone anywhere in a Civil Service building and just log in; your number follows you. The service also enables home and remote working.”  This frees Civil servants from their desks, and transforms how they work, allowing true mobility and collaborative working.

An infrastructure to support high-end video-conferencing is also in place and has seen increased usage over the last year.

In general terms, video has become “very fit for purpose and very affordable.” As organisations have modernised their network, a small investment into the core of the video infrastructure has just put in place some really powerful tools.   IP telephony and video conferencing together deliver benefits straight to the bottom line by reducing communications and travel costs as well as the indirect benefit of better collaboration between civil servants.

All of this is an example of what can be achieved through shared services built on a solid converged managed network platform.


The final project, in partnership with Fujitsu, was the roll-out of the network for Libraries NI. He explains: “Having that highly available and highly performing network service is what underpins the transformation, enabling shared services to all libraries, allowing the public digital access and bringing the library experience into the 21st Century.  Already, Wi-Fi is allowing elderly citizens not familiar with digital services to engage in a safe environment.”


A Model Network

From eir’s perspective, the Review of Public Administration on local government and the formation of the super-councils from next April constitutes the next biggest opportunity for government transformation. Technology has a key role in addressing the business challenges in the local government sector.  There are significant opportunities for cost savings, for enhancing the citizen experience, consolidation and flexible work practices.

“We’ve seen in central government the efficiency that can be achieved through the basic principle of aggregating and centralising network demand,” Lemon states. “On day one, that achieved 50 per cent cost savings by eradicating waste and by implementing modern consistent architecture.  In local government, it probably has the potential to achieve that level of saving and then some more.”

The reform programme will consolidate entities as well as physical locations and this is “just the beginning” of technology’s role in helping to implement change. There is a “huge advantage” in seeking to modernise and enable a consolidated telephony platform.

From a citizen’s perspective, eir has carried out some interesting and innovative work in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon by connecting local council telephony with the NI Direct service. A call that goes into a council office can also be referred to any of the Civil Service’s 21,000 telephony users or the NI Direct desk without having to redial or join another queue.

“It’s a very easy transition,” he adds, “and one that we hope to extend more greatly across all the new councils. It is another prime example of the value of convergence.” The citizen is not interested, primarily, in who provides the public service but instead wants his or her need to be met.  That project has been “really successful” in delivering on this and shows how a “low value, high impact” service can bring dividends.

Additional features of the network, such as Presence, allow employees to schedule communication more efficiently when the organisation operates over multiple sites. Employees can easily see who’s available, the best way to reach them and redirect communication accordingly. When property is consolidated, the technology can follow as well and provide a long-term solution.


The first council cluster has gone out to market with eir winning the bid to provide a modern telephony service. “We’ve put a lot of work into building that and technology has become a lot more affordable as well so it’s maybe coming at the right time,” he relates.

“We now see a lot of activity with the shadow councils,” Lemon says.  “A number of them have already engaged specialist consultancy service to do short, sharp pieces of work that will help provide guidance around ICT.”  2015 will be a progressive year for local government.


Another significant development is the second phase of the Public Services Network (PSN) framework. This Cabinet Office initiative has been put in place to provide a single framework through which UK Government bodies can procure a range of communications services.  The second phase has just gone to market and follows on from a substantial amount of learning in the first phase.

Lemon explains: “The outcome of the first phase didn’t match initial expectations of the volume and the value of contracts going through the PSN – it has probably only out-turned 10 per cent of the originally envisaged business. It didn’t quite remove the complexity and the multiple stages involved in public sector procurement although engagement was strong.”

“Communication services can be complex and the procurement of them can be very complex,” Lemon continues. “Contracts always get awarded to the best value proposition and we’ve seen a real spectrum of different award criteria where sometimes the decision would be made 70 per cent on the price and 30 per cent of the quality of the bidder.  This can range back to 50:50 on the quality and price split.”

He still sees examples where suppliers win business on a least-cost basis but the customer has to “put their hand in their pocket again and again.” This creates a very difficult environment in which to operate commercially. Ultimately converged networks and communications are a foundation for everything else and so getting the quality/price ratio right is critical.  All network services are not equal.

“We think that PSN has a lot of potential,” Lemon affirms. “It will make it a lot easier to go and procure straightforward services – be it mobile, traditional or hosted telephony – all the way through to network services and it will provide an option to match the sophistication and complexity of the user need.”

Agencies and users have also been engaged in the second phase and the framework will have a “radically improved” set of requirements. The initiative was created centrally with the intention of delivering locally – if stakeholder engagement is there, the benefits will follow.


Looking Ahead

The outlook is good for eir NI and Lemon alludes to their strategic focus for the year ahead.  “We’re doing more and more with private sector organisations and it’s symptomatic of a recovering economy,” he comments.  “We’re working with people like Chain Reaction, Concentrix and Wrightbus – all very innovative and very progressive companies that are doing well.  They’re great examples of Northern Irish companies operating successfully on a global scale.  We look forward to an interesting year ahead working with such companies and others on their growing needs in the area of WiFi, Datacentres & Cloud services, Videoconferencing, and Managed Security.  We will also be launching an exciting new high-end fibre-based unlimited managed Internet service targeting the growing NI Tech sector. ”

In terms of the commitment to the government’s shared services platform and the transformation of the citizen experience, local government is a significant priority. The four strands of eir’s local government strategy are to simplify, save, share and serve, and Lemon sees this as a great opportunity – once in a generation – to help the councils truly transform and reap the benefits that ICT convergence can bring them, ultimately delivering better service to the citizen.

When going through that process, councils can draw upon local expertise in terms of suppliers and supply chain but also more importantly the experience gained within central government.

“It’s really important that we capture that,” Lemon says of the lessons learned from the transformation process to date. “The Finance Minister frequently refers to our really exceptional record on shared services initiatives in central government.  This is a great opportunity for local government to reap the dividends of that.”

Darren Lemon is General Manager at eir Business Solutions NI.  Contact Darren at linkedin.com/in/darrenlemon