27 July 2017

Nigel Blair, Head of Product and Innovation – What can you do for your software supplier?

Nigel Blair, Head of Product and Innovation at Northgate Public Services. Article written for Insight – The monthly journal of the Institute of Revenues, Rating & Valuation

The world of the software supplier and the relationship we share with our customers has changed markedly over the years. Over the years we’ve also seen our customers change or more specifically, the decision makers who ultimately buy systems has evolved. Back in mainframe days, when the computer needed whole floors of dedicated space and packaged R+B products started to emerge it was probably the Chief Financial Officer who decided what was bought. The hardware probably dictated what software was used and therefore discussions wouldn’t flow much further than the IT Director. As hardware became more open and agnostic, the head of R+B and their system experts became the buyers and increasingly the view of the end users who use the system on a daily basis became paramount. As the core system became more back office and the user interface moved online and towards self-service, we will see different interests taking centre stage. Software is going the way of hardware and becoming a commodity.

So what distinguishes the R+B software supplier from his or her compatriots in local government? Firstly, that dirty word ‘Money’, yes, we do need money, to pay our masters, to invest in our products and to employ good people. But aside from that, the similarities outweigh a lot of the differences; a lot of our people were once your people and share your passion and purpose. Most of our people (support, product, testing etc) started their careers in local government.

An abiding problem for software suppliers is that no-one really understands systems. People tend to think that it’s all very easy or very hard or they can’t visualize what they want. Sometimes we don’t help because when we get involved (often too late), we might not understand the requirement (or you might not explain it properly). You might end up expecting an apple while we might end up delivering you a pear (late). The answer is early engagement and not taking anything for granted on either side.

As you may have spotted, in R+B there isn’t just one breed of software supplier, there are 3 main package providers; Capita, Civica & NPS.  We’ve all been around a while and we do bring certain advantages; R+B expertise, innovation, best practice and competition. Competition helps create a proper market, a need to deliver and hopefully good value.  An example of the advantages of this market can be seen if we compare how the implementation of new rules for families with 2 children or more were introduced into Housing Benefit and Universal Credit. For Housing Benefit, all 3 HB suppliers delivered the changes before the regulations took effect. For Universal Credit where one supplier owns the market, the DWP were told that the change could not be implemented until September 2018 (18 months after it came into effect).

Why is the relationship between R+B and software systems so strong? The simple fact is that R+B loves systems. Systems give R+B most of what it needs. In contrast, housing needs safe, physical houses (which need repairing etc), social care is delivered by actual social workers. R+B needs people, however, most of its desired outcomes (money in & money out) are delivered through systems. Council Tax & Business Rate payers need to pay and we need to make that as easy as possible. Benefit claimants need assistance (and ultimately payments of money). Management and government need information. Systems can deliver all the above. That’s why systems are at the heart of R+B and why R+B has had to keep up to date with the evolution of technology

So what can you do for your software supplier?

  1. We need better communication and liaison with central government. Some inroads have been made but recent, ongoing issues regarding business rates show there is still a long way to go. Legislation is still arriving from Whitehall, Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont. Some departments are better than others but all can improve. Failure to do so means that customer service is impacted, quality of software is compromised and our support calls rocket.
  2. Be an active member of a user group.
  3. Please involve us in your plans and strategies by maintaining open lines of communication. Tell us if you’re happy or unhappy, challenge us. Every time we engage with a customer ,we learn.
  4. The fastest growing group of users is the public. Help us to know your public better. We have 10,000 end users who use our systems on a daily basis. By way of contrast, our CT customers send out 12 million annual bills. If only 10% of those bill payers choose to self- serve, that adds up to 1.2 million citizen users. We need to make sure that they are getting a good service.

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