Shared Services Roadblocks and Rewards Examined at Harvard Summit

Shared services summit brings together public-sector IT pros from around the world.

by / June 25, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Last week, government IT professionals from around the world, some coming from as far away as Nigeria and New Zealand, convened at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to discuss how the public sector can better use shared services.

The summit, part of the Kennedy School's Leadership for a Networked World program, was an in-depth, two-day immersion into shared services -- what it is, how government can benefit and the obstacles to implementation. Jerry Mechling, faculty chair of the Leadership for a Networked World program, hosted the summit and offered insights as to why the time is right for government IT to adopt shared services.

The current economic crisis, Mechling said, is a window of opportunity for government agencies to move to a shared services environment. Mechling explained that shared services not only provide greater efficiency, but can also serve to reduce the number of workers being laid off and help answer President Barack Obama's call for greater transparency in government.

David Wilson, managing director for summit sponsor Accenture's State and Local Government Public Sector Finance and Administration Industry, said the back-office functions of government, which politicians and the public typically ignore, need executive support for a successful move to shared services. The trick, Wilson said, is to show both the executives and public why these functions are important.

"If you can align [shared services] to their political or business objectives, like keeping tuition at the same rate or not having to cut certain programs, I think that's how you get the executive and political interest in what is typically a very unsexy area," Wilson said.

Mechling added that a shared services environment, operating in a shared services center, could serve as a winning issue with constituents, thanks to improved service delivery and boost to local economies.

"The other benefits that are important to the both the public and general managers -- you can deliver quality service consistently and you can move your service from downtown Manhattan to someplace where it becomes an economic development tool," he said.

Richard Arbuthnot, executive director of NASA's Shared Services Center (NSSC) at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, answered the question of how shared services can spark economic growth. Arbuthnot said the NSSC has paid off NASA's $30 million initial investment into the center in just three years. Additionally, in late 2005, the NSSC was able to deliver 200 civil service jobs to the Gulf Coast region, which had just been struck by Hurricane Katrina.

For many in attendance, achieving success such as NASA has found is a distant goal. Instead, many participants were looking for ways to simply begin the visioning process. As such, one particularly well received session featured public-sector IT executives at various stages of implementing shared services. California CIO Teri Takai represented an enterprise still in the visioning stages, while Canadian David Hallett, associate deputy minister for Ontario Shared Services, represented an enterprise currently reaping rewards from existing in a shared-services environment. In between Takai and Hallett were Aaron Erickson, executive sponsor of the Ohio Shared Services project, and Greg Wass, CIO of Illinois, to explain how they moved from the visioning stage Takai is at toward the successful enterprise deployment Hallett had achieved.

During his opening remarks, Mechling mentioned that 54 percent of the summit attendees indicated they were in the visioning stage of enterprisewide share services. An encouraging number, and one he said, leads him to believe a shared services movement is imminent.

"I'm pretty optimistic about the 54 percent of this group, though I don't know if that's representative [of government in general]," Mechling said. "When a few

people do things, others start to notice what's going on. When it then goes beyond that to a point where enough people have been successful, it starts to take off. We're not at take-off, but we're beyond the first stage. There's now enough experience to get over some of the hurdles people are nervous about."

One of those hurdles Mechling mentioned is, according to Wilson, the fact that many agencies have done the same thing the same way for too many years. In addition, there are a number of agencies that, though they would be unlikely to admit it, don't see cost-saving and improved efficiency as an important function.

"Believe it or not, there are some governments where the corporate culture does not focus on cost-cutting and efficiencies," Wilson said. "So if you try to sell a program like shared services just as a cost-cutting or efficiency initiative, it's not an objective of that organization. There are people [here] who have told me that is their biggest obstacle."

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

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