Like many local authorities across the UK, Hampshire County Council is struggling to secure adequate funding to match growing demands for local services. But the council does not intend to meet those demands simply by ratchetting up the council tax bills of the county’s 1.2 million residents.
Instead, it hoping that by re-casting its current portfolio of silo-based applications around a service-oriented architecture (SOA) it can significantly cut the cost of delivering services. Along with technology partner IBM, the council is planning to build a cohesive applications infrastructure that will enable its 10,000 users to share information more freely and to deploy applications functionality with greater flexibility.
Though the council has not detailed the full extent of the proposed savings, for 2007 alone it estimates that the SOA project will deliver £11 million in efficiency improvements.
The first phase of implementation, due within the next six months, will see the deployment of an enterprise content management system across several agencies. But, the five year SOA strategy will encompass applications integration, portals, development, security and access, systems management and automation.
Central to that effort will be the creation of an SOA Centre of Excellence by IBM’s Software Group. Their aim is to establish an ‘agile technology platform’ that will provide business managers with a set of components from which they can design applications.
Says Andy Holdup, principal IT consultant at Hampshire County Council: “People are used to retrieving information from different systems, but what we want to do is put the pieces of applications together that will work for somebody’s specific job. So, for example, the technology will dip into the social care system, the education system and finance system and present this as a whole to the people on the ground.”
By using SOA, instead of ‘hard wiring’ links between disparate systems, Hampshire plans to roll out new services to the council’s staff, schools, fire services, hospitals, as well as its suppliers and partners.
Holdup underscores how SOA is a major change in direction for the council. “We had to do something in order to contain council tax,” he says. “We cannot expect to meet the increased demand [for IT-enabled services] by constantly going back and asking for more money.”
Hampshire is one of the first UK council’s to embrace SOA with such enthusiasm, say those advising on the project. “[The] council is taking the lead in the government sector by moving to an SOA as the strategic core of its computing environment,” says Robin Bloor, chief analyst at Bloor Research.
But according to Jos Creese, CIO at Hampshire, the council’s ambitions are grounded in pragmatism rather a desire to be at the cutting edge. “We have chosen a services-oriented architecture approach not because it is technologically fashionable, but because we see it as an essential next step in our technology strategy,” he says. “[It is a] pre-requisite for IT to meet the needs of front line services and the general public and to get the best from our IT investments elsewhere.”
IBM’s lead role will come as no surprise to many observers. The company’s software organisation has a long association with Hampshire: Hursley, near Winchester, is one of the company’s largest software development facilities – the source of several of IBM’s WebSphere products and the home to its storage virtualisation team.