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October 2006
Executive opinion

Local authorities: Bull, architect of an open world and champion of best practices
By Jean-Pierre Barbéris, General Manager of Bull’s Services and Solutions business

Information systems performance is one of the main factors when it comes to the dynamism of local governments. Bolstered by this belief and its in-depth knowledge of local authorities’ issues and constraints, Bull has developed a range of tools and services dedicated to meeting the new challenges they face, including skills transfer, cost management and service quality monitoring.

It seems that, today, the local government market is one of the most dynamic when it comes to investing in new information technologies. How do you explain this trend?
The growing power of New Information and Communications Technologies (NICT) in local government is first and foremost linked to the role they play in the dynamism of their area. From now on, IT and telecoms infrastructures act as drivers for development in just the same way as transport infrastructures: roads, airports, rail lines. The real challenge, at a time when local authorities are integrating a growing range of skills, is to guarantee the best quality of services to both the existing population and those who might want to come to the area: and that involves, most importantly, optimizing information systems. At the same time, investment in IT is looking like an essential prerequisite for effective local authority management, both in terms of financial indicators and HR management tools. Local authorities are no longer simply talking about offering higher levels of service; now it’s all about seeing through their public policies and demonstrating results, all the while respecting the need to control costs.

How much of Bull’s business is accounted for by your work with local authorities?
Bull carries a great deal of weight in this sector. The company gets 40% of its revenues from the public sector, and local authorities alone account for a third of that business.

Doesn’t Bull’s historical role in the public sector in France mean that it’s restricted to that market alone?
That picture certainly doesn’t match the current reality of Bull’s business. Over 50% of our revenues now come from outside France, and the public sector accounts for about the same proportion of our business in all the countries where we operate. And not just in Europe, of course, but also in the USA, where we work on numerous Medicaid projects in many States, including New York. We have a particularly strong presence in Central and Eastern European countries, where we have been modernizing their customs and taxation systems, as well as in South America, Africa and the Middle East. Our experience outside France has made a significant contribution to enhancing our skill base, particularly in change management.

What are the main differences that you see at Bull between the policies followed in France and elsewhere?
Before I talk about the differences, it’s important to note that technological evolution is leading to a degree of convergence when it comes to policies. In real terms, the objectives seem to be increasingly similar and the differences are more in terms of how far projects have advanced and organizational models have changed. So we see that the Anglo-Saxon and Northern European countries are much more open to outsourcing and the number of ‘shared service center’ projects is growing rapidly. Elsewhere, there is a line separating traditionally centralized countries and those that have put in place a highly decentralized system of government. In that context, it isn’t relevant to isolate Mediterranean European, which would be behind the highly advanced Northern Europe. In the same way, the UK makes great use of outsourcing, while maintaining a strongly centralized organization based around large regions, whereas Italian local authorities do not often sub-contract, although they are well ahead when it comes to decentralization. What’s more, we must not forget that some of Europe’s major regions have seen their workforce grow by 50% or more in just a few years, whereas others have tended to stabilize.

As a consequence, what are the common trends across all countries?
Logically, one of the main trends involves improving the effectiveness of long-term public policy initiatives, from the point of view of the funding and workforce allocated to them, as well as the management of social grants. Above and beyond this, we are starting to notice sustained and significant growth in Open Source, which is explained both by the need to ensure the openness of information systems and to control costs.
Another constant factor is business intelligence and the need for new performance indicators, which enable the effectiveness of local government activities to be constantly monitored. I should also mention the development of regulatory frameworks that, in particular, mean that security is becoming absolutely unavoidable. In the same way, the ‘shared service center’ model for back-office activities is becoming much more widespread, especially in France, where groups of local government bodies are increasingly joining forces on these kinds of projects.

What added value does Bull offer to help local authorities meet these challenges?
The first thing is definitely that we fully understand local authorities’ objectives and the challenges they face. We believe, like they do, that IT should both contribute to the dynamism of local government and help the authority manage its spending and provide useful decision-support tools. That’s why Bull Management, our consulting division, is so important to providing change management services and identifying the most appropriate tools to support business decision-making. Bull also offers four other kinds of services and products to the local government market: from systems integration to outsourcing, security to IT infrastructure solutions.
In all cases, Bull is organized in such a way as to share local authority objectives. That’s certainly the case with our well-respected and proven Coriolis software suite for local authority financial management. We have also stayed one step ahead in terms of the growth of Open Source, particularly with the development of our two dedicated services centers in Grenoble and the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of France, the latter being specially focused on the local government market, through our ‘Open City’ package of services. When it comes to IT security, our expertise extends from the implementation of electronic signatures, to the design of business recovery plans and video surveillance management.
In the same spirit, Bull has developed mobile workforce solutions especially for local government, such as waste collection route optimization or traffic congestion solutions.
Finally, experience shows that itself Bull is seen by its customers as being at the cutting-edge. Our understanding of the public sector and widespread presence means we can anticipate the development of skills transfer. The upstream work we are carrying out for various ministries and central government departments puts us ahead of the game when it comes to understanding governmental programs. From that point of view, our close relationship with various public sector bodies is a major asset.

In real terms, what kinds of local authorities does Bull work with?
Bull works extensively with medium-sized and large local government bodies, whose needs match closely with the products and services we offer. On the ground, our role is to be that of a champion of best practices. The local authority sector seems to be both very specialized and fragmented. The growing competition between different local governments naturally generates new benchmarking requirements, although at the same time many local authorities are convinced about the need to share information with each other. Behind that apparent contradiction, there appears to be a common logic that is leading to a growth in shared services centers and shared hosting of information systems. In fact, the targets that local authorities are setting themselves – in terms of service quality and availability, increasingly 24/7 – makes it very difficult, indeed almost impossible to achieve in-house. And that, in reality, is increasingly part of Bull’s core business.

Interview translated from the CIO French publication, in an issue dedicated to the public sector

See also: "Information technology serving local government dynamism" white paper >>

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