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IBM tempts threadbare councils with off-the-peg data analysis

But do councils need culture change before hi-tech?

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Comment An initiative from IBM may help strengthen its ties in the public sector – but questions remain as to whether prospective clients are capable of getting the most from such a service.

Last week, IBM announced "the creation of a new practice focused on delivering advanced analytic solutions to public sector clients".

The new IBM Business Analytics and Optimization Services for Public Sector team will pull together experts from a range of disciplines, as well as tapping into mathematics and information management capabilities across IBM.

Charles Prow, managing partner of Global Business Services for IBM Public Sector, said: "The ability to use more sophisticated approaches in analyzing information, extracting insights and optimizing that information can help public-sector organizations make more informed decisions, better manage their resources and achieve greater accountability.

"IBM sees an enormous opportunity to help our clients improve program delivery by gaining access to real-time information that will aid decision making and ultimately improve their efforts to serve citizens."

The need for such a service is widely recognised within the UK. A recent Cabinet Office report – Listening to the Front Line (pdf) – makes the point that "the collection and analysis of appropriate and timely data [...] is critical for operational boards and policy makers to make effective and value-for-money decisions".

Professor Merlin Stone is an internationally acclaimed expert in the field of customer relationship management (crm), and Research Director at Consultancy WCL, which focuses on public sector transformation.

He said: "Public sector analytics is about to go through the same revolution that private sector analytics went through 10 years and more ago - moving from a few specialist projects to becoming a central part of any policy initiative - from strategy through to delivery and evaluation".

However, a note of caution was sounded by Mark Hollyoake, of Springboard Consulting. While recognising that large amounts of data already exists within the public sector, his concern is with the interpretation and action. "The key is ensuring front line staff have just the right amount of information, they understand it and are empowered to act upon it," he said. "Having people that can develop the insights and interpret them, translating them into actions.

"One of the issues the public sector faces is the co-ordination of multi agency providers to deliver a joined up service.

"As we have seen time and time again, large numbers of agencies come together to provide support and services yet drop the ball: this is often due to the focus and ability to join up the approach."

Another obstacle to public service nirvana may, ultimately, be local government and public sector culture. Three years ago, the Journal of Database Marketing carried out an analysis of entries to the Business Intelligence IT Awards.

Within the CRM category, a number of identikit projects by local councils all proudly described how they were giving residents greater value for money by creating "one-stop shops" and "freeing up back office staff to do what they do best". Translation: they set up a call centre, and made it harder to escalate queries to senior managers.

Without exception, evaluation of ratepayer/customer satisfaction was carried out on the basis of how far these schemes met internally set targets, as opposed to actual customer needs. The danger, therefore, of the IBM initiative is that it will provide the Public Sector with a formidable array of tools that will enable them to grapple with their client base more efficiently – but unless this is accompanied by a change in overall culture, they will not do so more effectively. ®

Disclaimer: this is an area in which the author has worked extensively as a consultant over the last decade, including projects carried out with Merlin Stone and Springboard Consulting. The author is also editor of the Journal of Database Marketing.

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