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14 August, 2013 - 10:50 By Tony Quested

Arcus software saves taxpayers millions

Mike Appleyard, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills at Buckinghamshire County Council

Cambridge technology is being deployed to improve the life chances of under-fives in Buckinghamshire through a pioneering alliance between Arcus Global and the county council.

Arcus Global, whose software has its roots in the University of Cambridge in the UK, has developed a bespoke system called Indigo designed to improve the welfare of thousands of children and their families. It will also save vast sums of taxpayers’ cash.

Staff working at the 35 children’s centres in Buckinghamshire have moved to the council-hosted system developed by Arcus Global; they say it gives them greater flexibility when entering and searching for data. This means they can build up clearer patterns of information to help improve resources within local communities.

The switch also means an annual cash saving for the council of more than £26,000 in licensing and operating costs. The cost of the change is likely to be recouped in less than three years.

But for staff, the biggest benefit will come in the way data can now be used to aid families and children in need of assistance.

Mandie Clemmett, Children’s Centre Commissioner at County Hall, said: “This will give us a better understanding of the needs of families in each catchment area. It will allow us to target the more in-need families, but will also give us information about other groups – for instance, professional first-time mums – who require more support.”

And Mike Appleyard, Cabinet Member for Education and Skills at Buckinghamshire County Council, added: “I have put the services for pre-school children at the top of my priorities. If we cannot improve the life chances of children at this early stage, then we are committing them to a poorer quality of life that they should expect.”

Indigo will be used by 130 children centre staff and four County Hall administrators. Last year, 10,000 children used the centres - around 33 per cent of Buckinghamshire’s under-fives. The council hopes to increase this to 65 per cent.

The new software replaces a system called eStart which was hosted nationally by a company called Capita for about 150 local authorities. Any changes requested by Buckinghamshire staff had to be agreed by the other users, which made it more difficult to adjust the system for local needs.

Indigo has been developed by Arcus Global and by contrast, will be ‘cloud’ based and hosted by the council. Officials believe it will be easier to capture and then use the information accordingly.

For instance, the data can build up a picture of readiness of children in areas for pre-school and nursery, and this can be given to local schools to help them plan for their intakes.

The information will also be used to try to identify families in the greatest need of help – although staff stress data is only given on a voluntarily basis by parents and there is no legal requirement for them to do so. Any information given is held in confidence and only used to support families within children’s centres.

Children’s centres help to support all families with children under the age of five. They also welcome expectant mums and dads and carers for the under 5s such as foster parents, childminders and extended family members such as grandparents. This enables them to get advice and support to help you access the services you need close to home.

The centres offer drop-in fun play activities, help parents find childcare and early learning services, health and family support services, help with getting back into work and training and more.

Arcus Global has also developed a ground-breaking system revolutionising the way the council’s contracts are stored and managed – it could save taxpayers at least £15 million a year.

Trailblazing Bucks could also bring in large amounts of additional money by selling the new computer software to other local authorities who are already interested in buying it.

The Council aims to go live with its contract management system on August 26 in a move that will radically change the way it runs its business. The authority currently pays out around £300 million annually to thousands of external organisations – amounting to 65 per cent of its total spend.

These contractors cover the whole spectrum of council functions, from companies providing social care for vulnerable adults, to firms supplying computer network services. Until now all the various contracts were stored in a multitude of formats and sites.

“They were in a dozen different filing cabinets in a dozen different sites across the organisation,” said Jonathon Noble, the council’s category manager for major projects. “Contracts ranged from physical documents to computerised files stored in other systems across the council. Just finding a variation on a contract could often take up a large amount of officer time.”

That will all change under the new software, which has cost £101,000 to create.

“The system will provide a single council-wide repository for all of our contracts,” said Noble. “But this is not just about the storage; it’s how the contracts are then managed, especially in terms of checking that contractors are performing to the right standards, are financially stable and have quality processes in place for issues such as safeguarding and business continuity.

“Previously, recording these details was done in many different ways – on spreadsheets or word documents – across lots of different systems. It was a very manual and time-consuming process.”

Serious research has shown that organisations that manage contracts well can save between five and 15 per cent of their total third party spend, says Noble. Even if the saving was five per cent, this would shave £15 million off the annual bill.

Some of this will come in the reductions in the time needed by officers on dealing with contracts, but Noble predicts there will be ‘cashable savings’ as a result of working more closely with suppliers. Contractors will also benefit from the system because they will be given their own log-ins, and this will mean efficiencies for them as well.

But the most novel innovation is that the Council has agreed a partnership deal with software creator, Arcus Global, to sell the product on to other authorities and receive a portion of the profits.

Noble said: “We are talking to a number of local authorities in the region and once we have the system in place, we will be talking nationally to public sector customers. If we sold the system to 11 local authorities the size of Bucks, we would recover all of the development costs.”

• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Mike Appleyard

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