I have been thinking about the issue of IT systems and consolidation. This seems like an extremely relevant issue here in Solihull at the moment. In the past, our users have generally favoured the idea of using best-of-breed business applications. They argued that if they could get a smaller system that is specifically built for a function such as ASB for the same cost of a more generic case management system that is part of a larger integrated housing system, then that is what they would rather do. However, this view has tended to ignore the on-going costs of supporting and developing multiple smaller systems.
We recently signed an agreement with Capita worth over £270,000 to migrate to its Open Housing platform. Currently our rents, leaseholders and arrears functions are using Capita Housing and our repairs function and DLO are using Open Housing. We also have a number of smaller systems for things such as money advice and ASB that we also want to migrate to the Open Housing platform. There are three main reasons why we have decided to migrate to a single consolidated system.
Firstly, in these days of benefit reform and a one per cent decrease in rent every year for the next four years, we need to reduce our costs. Having multiple systems costs more to maintain than having a single system. This year alone we have had to upgrade all of our systems either because the supplier only supports a limited number of older releases or because Microsoft has decided that the Windows servers that they run on are no longer supported. There seems to be a lot of work and cost involved in just keeping our current systems and infrastructure fully supported. The more systems you have, the more work that is involved in just keeping everything going. At the same time our users are still keen to develop new services and to expand their use of technology. Upgrades need to happen but from a user’s perspective, things often don’t look any different. The more we can reduce the amount of time we spend carrying out upgrades and other maintenance work, the more we can work with our users to develop new solutions in the increasingly challenging social housing world.
Secondly, we want to provide usable, integrated and simple online services for our tenants. This is partly driven by the need to cut costs but also by the desire to encourage our tenants to be digitally included. The provision of a single portal that allows tenants to pay their rent, enquire about their rent balance, book a repair, report anti-social behaviour and update their contact details is made far more complex and expensive if you need to link to multiple back-office systems.
Mobile on the go
Finally, we want to enable our workforce to be totally mobile and able to access information and systems using laptops, tablets and smartphones. Again, this is much easier and cheaper if we can reduce the number of back-office systems that need to be integrated into the mobile application. We want to provide our staff and contractors with access to information and the ability to update systems in the field and for that information to be immediately available to all other users.
There will always be people who believe that you can have your cake and eat it too, and that with middleware and integration tools you can link together multiple systems from different vendors. Indeed, these days even when you buy all of your software from the same supplier, you often find that they are re-selling software from other vendors and additional software has to be bought to make the various elements talk to each other. But here in Solihull for the three reasons above, we have decided to reduce the number of smaller bespoke systems we use and to focus our efforts on a much smaller set of systems.
Chris Deery is head of ICT at Solihull Community Housing.