Steve Browell, CTO of Intrinsic, writes about the benefits of unified communications (UC) for public sector services.
Lately there have been encouraging signs that the Government has become more serious about delivering successful IT projects. The UK Government G-Cloud, for instance, is showing significant promise in slashing the costs of IT procurement, while projects such as the Emergency Services Network (ESN) are replacing out-of-date communications systems.
The ESN provides a great example of this direction. Up to £1.5bn is available with the aim of delivering an integrated voice, broadband data and mobile communications services to all three emergency services and other users in England, Wales and Scotland. These would support around a quarter of a million operational staff – and their associated devices.
One great advantage of the ESN – and indeed, of rationalised procurement in general – is that it enables government agencies to learn the lessons of best practice from other organisations. In the field of UC, for example, many emergency services have already taken their first steps towards implementing technologies that improve the way they communicate and deliver services to the public.
The key to the success of ESN is integration: not only of the communications themselves, but of the suppliers too. In September, the Home Secretary gave a speech lamenting the "£1 billion per year spent on inadequate ICT, with 4,000 staff working on 2,000 separate systems across 100 data centres." In its stead, the ESN promises to deliver unified communications (UC) along with a more ‘joined-up’ network of suppliers. We need to see more organisations echoing this promise.
Our work deploying UC with Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) highlights such a step in the right direction. GMFRS has recently converged its voice, data and contact centre infrastructure, allowing GMFRS to transfer inbound emergency calls onto the network and link them to other emergency services, as well as to deploy fixed mobile convergence for employees over the organisations’ installed WLAN infrastructure.
The primary goal with any UC initiative is to improve workforce productivity; public sector organisations also have the imperative to connect more effectively with the people they serve. Just as ordinary people use a variety of messaging applications, video conferencing and collaboration tools to connect with each other, blue light services also need to adapt and expand the number of channels they communicate with.
The Metropolitan Police provides a great example of how UC can facilitate communication while also affording other benefits throughout the organisation. In the first refresh of its command and control system for 30 years, the Met is planning to enable the public to be able to interact with the force by phone, text, online and social media, 24 hours a day. Aside from the benefits to the public, this also makes a great deal of sense from an operational and budgetary point of view. With the Metropolitan Police taking more than five million 999 and 101 calls each year, new communications technologies will hugely benefit call handling and investigations by reducing the burden on call centre staff.
Basing UC on the right infrastructure is especially important given the trend towards shared services in the public sector. For emergency services this is manifesting itself in merged contact centres. While this brings better opportunities for rolling out UC functionality to multiple emergency services, it naturally requires particularly robust and reliable infrastructure.
While UC implementations are becoming more widespread in the blue light sector, the technology is still a long way from becoming the norm. At this stage in the adoption curve, emergency services will do well to study other UC implementations like those above, and carry the lessons of failures as well as examples of best practice into their own projects.
As with many medium and large-sized enterprises around the world already deploying UC technologies, the blue light sector should be encouraged to ensure that their own unified communications can bring a truly beneficial revolution to their operations.