More government intelligence for less
Belgian public sector CIO taps into analytical creativity and maximizes resources
Frank De Saer, CIO at Belgium’s Federal Public Service Economy, which includes the very important National Institute of Statistics (NIS), recognizes that an effective information delivery strategy is driven by business needs. His challenge, as he sees it, is to increase the quality of government information and services while driving down its cost.
Achieving this objective means focusing on three distinct requirements: data standardization, more focused use of IT human resources; and, most importantly, putting information and analytics in the hands of the users.
The need for standardization exists for a number of reasons that have evolved over the years: the need to access data from various sources, the end user’s need for focused expert support without buck-passing, the economic benefits such as reduced maintenance fees and the desire to ensure that analytical reporting is based on “one version of the truth.”
Nowhere is it more important to ensure that analytics is based on a consistent and accurate pool of information than in the area of economic statistics, which serves as a basis for planning at macro- and microeconomic levels. “Our core business is delivering high-quality, reliable information to our customers: government ministers, civil servants, enterprises and private citizens,” says De Saer.
Public Service Economy is composed of 167 business units and services covering areas as diverse as the Belgian Enterprise Register, the calculation of fuel prices and intellectual property. These units require 24/7 access to business intelligence. That’s what de Saer’s team provides, but he goes even further: He sees the contemporary CIO’s challenge as increasing the quality of government information and services while driving down its cost.
Fewer employees, falling budgets
If you could travel back in time 15 years and see how things worked at the NIS then, you would appreciate the pace of change. Back then, all data had to be manually input into the flat files on the mainframe, and statistics were then laboriously compiled and published in hard copy. On the other hand, the NIS had enough human resources to cope with the task. Since then, headcount has been reduced steadily. For every three employees who retire, De Saer can recruit only one.
Budgets have likewise come under pressure. “We face a situation that is familiar to many CIOs in both the public and private sectors,” says De Saer. “Most of our annual budget is spent on fixed operational costs (OPEX). That means funds for new projects are diminishing every year if we do not succeed in reducing our OPEX.”
Empowering employees and customers
At the same time, the demands of end users at the NIS have changed dramatically. “To keep up with expectations, we need to stay ahead of the curve,” says De Saer.
Printed stats are no longer acceptable. Users want information that is delivered fit for purpose and ready to use.
“I feel we are at the forefront of a revolution in the way IT functions in the public sector,” says De Saer. “Essentially, the new way of working is to help employees and customers to help themselves.”
Each government department, institution, company and individual now wants to use information in their own particular way. They want to apply their own filters, and they want to be able to download digital files with data that can be easily extracted and loaded into their own systems. They want the data in a wide variety of formats such as Excel, XML, XBLR, HTML and Open Office. But they also want the information to be stamped with the official seal of federal government approval.
For example, the NIS publishes information about business start-ups and bankruptcies in Belgium. An end user can go in and drill down and filter on the data, for example to find out detailed information about start-ups and bankruptcies by locality in a particular sector such as hotels, restaurants and catering. He can then order the delivery of the same report on a monthly basis, in the format of his choice.
“We are delivering information that enables the federal and regional governments to understand, regulate and boost the country’s economic performance,” says De Saer.
For the most part, the information is provided freely on a self-serve basis.
External customers include large direct marketing companies, but more typically they are people working in regional branches of government who need information to support policy decision making, and managers in companies who need to make investment decisions or support business strategy. The problem is that the information resides on various IT systems, and packaging it in meaningful ways is not always straightforward. “It’s many times easier and quicker than in the days when we relied on manual effort, but the more users see the possibilities, the more sophisticated their demands,” De Saer says.
Rationalize and standardize
De Saer believes that to deliver maximum value, an Information and Communications Technology department must focus on its core business of delivering information. It must also rationalize and standardize. He has reorganized the ICT department at the Federal Public Service Economy around three competence centers, each using standard software: Java for business-critical development, Microsoft Sharepoint for office and document management and SAS for business intelligence. “We offered our users an informed choice on business intelligence. Once they had made their choice, we standardized. SAS is the only BI software we used.”
The NIS now has a growing body of “power users” who not only extract data but combine data from different sources, slice and dice it according to their local needs and often enrich it with their own in-house data. “We also decided to standardize on just one tool for these power users,” says De Saer. “That way we could ensure quality of support from our BI Competence Centre. The tool they selected was SAS® Enterprise Guide®, a graphical interface that exploits the power of SAS and enables users to publish dynamic results in a Microsoft Windows client application.
“Originally we offered less sophisticated options. But SAS Enterprise Guide has really unlocked the creativity of our internal customers and is now the preferred choice for business analysts and statisticians alike.”
From civil servant to public services counsel
De Saer believes business intelligence and analytics are critically important to any organization that is trying to do more for less. “With online business intelligence, you can outsource a lot of IT functions in much the same way that banks outsourced transaction processing by outsourcing it to their customers. So long as they have the right analytic software, our employees and customers can do more useful and creative things with information than my colleagues in ICT, for the simple reason that they know their own requirements best.
“Unleashing their creativity has helped transform the employees at Public Service Economy from the traditional image of civil servants into professional advisors on all aspects of public services and government.”
De Saer believes there is still some distance to travel on this mission. “The new philosophy is that government intelligence belongs to the public. Our future challenge is to do even more to unlock that asset through open services that facilitate collaboration between government, citizen and enterprises.
“Our philosophy is also to offer full transparency and multichannel access, putting the customer in control. This approach accelerates innovation while reducing the burden on IT – a win for everyone!”
Value from an end-to-end integrated solution
According to De Saer, the NIS attached great importance to controlling and minimizing operational and technical risks when choosing and deploying a platform. “SAS was the only supplier to offer a completely end-to-end integrated system,” he emphasizes, “including OLAP functionality, comprehensive reporting capabilities, ETL, data integration and Web solutions. Other suppliers offered a collection of tools from different vendors, requiring additional interfacing efforts. The integrated SAS solution was technically superior and promised to be more stable, guaranteeing integrated security and metadata in both the short and the long run.”
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Frank De Saer, CIO
Belgium Federal Public Service Economy
Despite shrinking budgets and staff shortages, deliver high-quality, reliable government information to an assorted mix of end users – public servants, businesses, the average citizen – and allow them to create self-service reports in the format of their choice
Reliable, accurate reports empower end users; self-service access reduces burden on IT, freeing up limited resources to pursue even more innovations for the benefit of government, business, and general public
“The integrated SAS solution was technically superior and promised to be more stable, guaranteeing integrated security and metadata in both the short and the long run.”
Frank De Saer