True Stories: IPA improves efficiency with IT

10 Nov 2003

Perhaps best known for its annual yearbook and diary, the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) is also the Irish national centre for the development of best practice in public administration and public management. In addition to publishing the yearbook it conducts training courses for public servants at national and local level, carries out research in the area of public administration and provides consultancy services.

While it has a public service element, the institute is a limited company, albeit with a not-for-profit status. As such, it is affected by the same pressures and trends that affect companies in the private sector, including the need to seek greater efficiencies and cut costs while improving services. Like many private-sector companies it relies on IT to achieve these goals.

At the heart of its information technology strategy is Microsoft Windows 2003 Server, which the institute installed a few months ago. While sharing many features with the Windows 2000 platform it replaces, Windows 2003 Server offers the IT department greater flexibility and security. For instance, if a user transfers from one section of the institute to another, the IT department can transfer that user from one group to another – where he or she might have different privileges and be subject to different policies – more easily.

But the Windows 2003 Server is essentially a tool and like most tools its usefulness comes not from what it does, but what it allows people to do.

Earlier this year, relying on the robustness of the Windows 2000 and 2003 Server platforms, the IPA introduced two new systems to streamline operations: TransFare, an application for generating and approving expense claims and Flextime, a computerised clocking in/off system.

“We have about 7,000 or so financial transactions per year. About 5,000 of those are with suppliers but 2,000 are to do with internal expenses,” explains Cyril Sullivan (pictured), director of finance and information systems at the IPA. “Under the old system, the credit controllers had to take the paper claims, check them, check the mileage rates depending on the size of car and then total everything. All of that information then had to be keyed into the system.”

With TransFare, however, the application is pre-programmed with such data as mileage rates, the size of the car each individual uses, overnight rates for various destinations and other essential data. “To make a claim, I would simply select the relevant code and cost centre from pull-down menus,” says Sullivan. “I then enter in my departure point and destination, say for instance I was driving from Dublin to Carlow and the system calculates the distance. However, if I was travelling to somewhere outside Carlow I have the option to override. It knows what car I drive and will automatically calculate the mileage allowance.”

Similarly, for subsistence, the user enters departure and return dates, and the system checks to see what allowances the user is entitled to. Finally for out-of-pocket expenses, the user selects the category of each expense and enters the amount. Once the claim is completed correctly – the system alerts the user to unfilled or incorrectly filled fields – the claim is filed and the person who has power of approval is notified. They can then review the claim and accept or reject it. If accepted, the claim is processed and the amount transferred to the users bank account. All told, the process can be completed in as little as two hours.

“It is a completely paperless system and is ferociously efficient,” says Sullivan. “In addition, we have data on all travel conducted on behalf of the institute and we have financial integration.”

The Flextime system replaces the traditional clocking in/out system. As they arrive, employees enter their name and a PIN code, either into their own desktop PC or to a PC at the institute’s reception desk. Time of entry and departure are recorded and hours worked are calculated in real time. Employees are able to see if they have worked their quota for the month, how much overtime they have done and how much leave they are entitled to while supervisors can get the same information for those working under them.

The system was recently modified to allow employees working out of the office, either from home or visiting a client, to use the system remotely, thus eliminating having to keep paper timesheets and avoiding messy reconciliation issues.

The institute is also now delivering many of its courses over the internet, both externally and internally. For instance, new hires can receive their induction training at their desk. According to Sullivan, the ongoing investment in IT that consumes approximately €500k per year is worth it. “We have taken on no extra staff,” he says “but since 1999 we have increased our turnover from €9m to a projected €16m in 2004.”

By David Stewart