Are electronic services in public administration a case of putting ‘lipstick on a pig’, or can they genuinely improve operational efficiency and delivery of services?
It’s a question which Swedish cities asked themselves before considering any work on e-services. They concluded that business process analysis suggested that there was a place for ICT solutions in public services, which will come as no surprise to most readers of these pages. Like Peter Madden from Future Cities Catapult, however, they also recognised that cities not only have limited resources, but insufficient know-how to provide their own solutions. The Swedish cities also recognised that the big ICT vendors are something of an oligopoly, leading to limited innovation.
They therefore formed their own association, Sambruk, the Swedish Association of Municipalities for Joint Development of Public e-Services. Sambruk was designed to mediate between the 290 municipalities, and the far smaller number of ICT suppliers. It started as a network in 2003, with 11 ICT managers, and now involves over 100 municipalities. It has a formally-elected board of councillors and senior managers from various municipalities, actively supported by academic R&D resources. Although it only has a very small central administrative resource, it draws on over 100 people across various projects in the member councils. Its business development projects are all about enhanced public services supported by technology to become e-services.
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
Sambruk has carried out a SWOT analysis, to identify key problems and issues, and also where it could best provide assistance to its members. A key strength was that it enabled members to draw on shared experience, knowledge and ‘best practice’. It also allowed sharing of project costs and enhanced buying power. The biggest weakness was the need for partners to get any negotiating position agreed ‘back at base’, plus a wide range of different ICT infrastructures among members, which meant that there were widely divergent demands for apps.
Threats included the national government and agencies ignoring Sambruk as well as the individual municipalities, and the high cost of replacing legacy infrastructure. The main opportunity was the flow of ideas between members and from Sambruk to its members.
Achievements through collaboration
Sambruk’s main roles are information dissemination to and between its members, acting as a programme office for ICT development, providing project coordination, and acting as a repository of knowledge and experience. Rather than every municipality having to learn from scratch for each ICT procurement, Sambruk is able to provide the benefit of its previous experience or even an ongoing project working on the same problem or issue. The tangible results include reports, specifications and applications that can be used more widely. The intangible results include knowledge-sharing and lobbying, which would not otherwise be possible.
Sambruk’s specific achievements include:
- The development of a collaborative working environment, where municipalities are no longer in competition, but peers and co-workers working on the same problems and issues.
- The creation of several bespoke applications for electronic public services, which can be used more widely by other municipalities in due course.
- The development of a ‘road map’ for service-oriented architecture (SOA), a software design pattern where particular pieces of software act as applications providing services to other applications. This is particularly useful to allow computers connected to a network to work together.
- The development of a framework for source-code sharing, which again will make it easier for municipalities to share systems and services. It also makes for a two-way relationship between municipality and ICT vendor.
- Providing municipalities with stronger bargaining power in their dealings with ICT vendors, in some way off-setting the power of the oligopoly.
- Giving municipalities a strong voice with central government and its agencies, who will generally not engage with individual municipalities, but are happy to engage with an umbrella body who can speak on behalf of a number of councils.
These results are impressive enough that the National Agency for Regions and Municipalities is using Sambruk’s model in its activities.
Claes-Olof Olsson, the Head of Operations for Sambruk, noted that the chief conclusion that the organisation had drawn from its success was that collaboration was key. It enabled municipalities to ‘punch above their weight’ in terms of negotiating both with suppliers and with central government agencies, and to develop new and innovative solutions to difficult issues. Other results had been cost-effective new business models, new e-services, and improved ‘best practice’. All in all, a hugely successful demonstration of the value to smaller organisations of working together with peers.