Back-office work has a bad rap in real life and in popular culture. Movies like Office Space and sitcoms like The Office parody the inefficiency of paper pushing, duplicative forms and convoluted workflows. The bottom-line message from these shows: Nothing of value ever happens in a cubicle.
Don’t tell that to government employees working at the Ohio Shared Services Center, which opened in September 2009. The center has revolutionized how the state manages common business functions like accounts payable, travel reimbursement, call center services, imaging and vendor paperwork. These tasks used to be handled separately by each state agency. Now they’re consolidated within a single building for the 14 state agencies that are participating voluntarily. The center is believed to be the first of its kind in state government.
Kumar Rachuri, CIO of the Ohio Office of Budget and Management, designed the center’s technology backbone from the ground up so that it would be scalable. Employees work on thin clients and voice over Internet protocol telephony; data goes to the on-site, dedicated server room. State employees send their invoices to the center through a statewide PeopleSoft ERP implementation called the Ohio Administrative Knowledge System. The IT was made flexible so that the state could quickly add or subtract services as needed, but it’s robust enough that the state could potentially use the infrastructure someday for other shared service “verticals” such as technology or procurement.
Handled individually, each invoice used to cost the state $33, Rachuri said. Ohio Shared Services has lowered that to $12, and hopes to get down to $6. No matter the figure, those involved say Ohio is saving a pile of money and turning around invoices more quickly than before.
Technology made the Ohio Shared Services possible, but overhauling culture was what made it work. As the center’s director, Ronn Kolbash led the push that transformed the workplace. The state agreed to a plan with the Ohio’s public employees union to recruit volunteers who would staff the new department. The productivity of individual workers and their units are statistically tracked, the results displayed to all on flat-screen monitors that are mounted on the walls. The wealth of data has improved productivity and given the center and participating agencies the information they need to pursue further efficiencies.
Having spent much of their careers working for Ohio in various capacities, Rachuri and Kolbash admit that it wasn’t easy to break down longstanding silos. “Not to be cliché, but change scares some people,” Kolbash said, “and when you have work spread out across all areas, you have fear of giving up control or ceding turf.”
With worries assuaged, Kolbash recently left the state to accept a job with Yale University, where he’s working to launch a similar shared services center. He believes the idea can work in many federal, state and local governments — even in academia. Rachuri remains in Ohio, where the reach of shared services continues to expand. “The challenge for us is to make the rest of the agencies believers in what we’re providing,” he said.
Ohio is well on its way. Fourteen agencies are onboard, nine to go.