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Adding Visibility to Local Council Finances – Internally and Externally

"Issues with financial visibility then stem from the fact that many of these systems are layered one on top of the other, without the APIs needed for easy connection of financial information"

By CBR Staff Writer

It’s a little bit of an understatement to say that the country is divided in its politics. And from the highest level of leadership and cabinet ministers through to local elections, the need for government bodies to show transparency and trustworthiness is at an all-time high.

For many, this starts with local councils. An invaluable part of the governmental landscape, they provide key services to communities throughout the country.

The issue that many people have is the transparency of where their money for these services ends up. Sure, you’ve paid £180 for an annual parking permit, but where exactly is that money going to end up? More importantly, does the council itself have the visibility and analysis needed to properly run their own finances, let alone allow the public a closer look?

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Emma Maslen, MD of UK Enterprise, SAP Concur

Of course, this isn’t an overnight job for an organisation as complex as a local council. From travel infrastructure and education through to social care, events and policing, they often have a multitude of different services and areas to tackle, each of which needs careful budgeting and funding.

The issue often lies with the finance and technology infrastructure that local councils have available to them. The traditional makeup of this is bound to two different issues that can lead to difficulties when updates are needed: legacy technology and on-premise solutions being used.

Legacy technology references the fact that for many local government organisations – especially those working on a tight budget – technology is incremental, with new systems simply added to the existing ones. Couple this with a prevailing use of on-premise hardware, as opposed to cloud-based solutions, this can also prove difficult to adjust and expand when needed, not to mention being a more expensive route to take.

The issues with financial visibility then stem from the fact that many of these systems are disparate; they are layered one on top of the other, without the APIs needed for an easy connection of financial information to give an overview.

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Quite simply, it’s an arduous process to input information, and even trickier to get the necessary information back out again. For the public just as much as council employees, clarity is hard to get.

For some, the way in which they approach getting more from their financial information is to get more manpower behind the process; be it internal staff or an outsourced resource. But in a climate of straining budgets, there is a clear cost distinction between paying numerous extra salaries and getting fit for purpose technology, which will always work out the more cost-effective option.

Thinking logically about the issue, greater visibility can’t be provided to the public until the council’s internal house is in order. That is where the work needs to begin. The first stage is to take on technology that can forecast, analyse and show trends in financial information that will allow councils the insight needed to run smoothly. Major infrastructure upgrades, expense reports, changes in suppliers and contracts; all of these can pop up unannounced to derail even the most solid of budgets if the organisation is running blind. By replacing bolted-together legacy systems with a cloud-based solution that can track against the likes of expenses, invoices (both in and outbound) and any business travel booking, councils can save themselves money, gain time back and ensure they can analyse expenditure and prepare for the future.

Once this is in place, the potential to provide greater visibility to constituents can come into play. Of course, local councils are not a closed book by any means with providing this. There are already annual reports into the money they receive and the way in which they spend it, but those that can step this up in frequency would go a long way towards proving that culture of transparency.

By this point, anyone that works in compiling these annual reports will be gritting their teeth – giving an overview of money into and out of a council and all the services that they provide is no small task. Again, this is where technology and software come to the fore, allowing council staff to work smarter, not harder. From the necessary expense information of elected officials to giving a better understanding of where public taxes have been invested, a fit-for-purpose solution will be able to compile this autonomously; no more pouring over spreadsheets and combining the data from individual systems in an annual slog.

That’s not to say that councils are not picking up on the technology available to them. Many, just like the private sector, are beginning to reap the awards of investing smartly into the back office. Agile methodology, a government initiative stemming from 2016, has gifted individual public sector bodies with greater capacity to make their own decisions, with real-time analysis allowing a move away from less nimble reporting methods.

The next step for councils that want to make the leap away from their legacy technology is to go about the procurement process in an intelligent way, to ensure that what they spend crucial public money on does exactly what it needs to. Rather than a wild leap of faith, often the first port of call is incumbent providers. Many big players in the space can now offer cloud-based software as well as their hardware solutions, and in cases such as this the move can be frictionless. Frameworks such as G-Cloud 10 are also of importance, giving councils a raft of providers that have had to jump through some stringent hoops, giving confidence in the fact they have been properly vetted. For large-scale deployments of new technology, further process such as OJEU procurement can give the necessary structure and support to again, make the right decision.

Between the move from many providers towards joined-up cloud technology and the frameworks that are in place to act as that support structure, the future is bright for local councils to considerably ease the burden on themselves, gain crucial insight into their financial health and, in turn, prove to constituents that they are the people to be trusted to make where they live an increasingly better place. All it takes is that bravery to unshackle themselves from the tangled web of legacy systems and make the move into a smarter future of finance.

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