IT has been held up nationally as a leading example of partnership working. It has saved hundreds of thousands pounds each year for taxpayers, and it has allowed the public to retain precious local services. But the highly-acclaimed project to create a new swathe of community libraries could easily have faced a serious flaw from the outset had Buckinghamshire County Council not found a simple way to tackle a fundamental issue over computer access.
The difficulty centred around the fact that the volunteers running the new libraries would not be permitted to use the Council’s internal computer drives in the same way staff are.
This meant they couldn’t share certain information even though they were still meant to be part of the main library network. Equally worrying, was the realisation that some voluntary groups found it difficult to create and maintain their own website and were unable as a result to share basic information among themselves.
As the latest community library prepares for opening on September 1, Council officials this week praised the inventiveness of ICT staff who provided the solution."We had to come up with a new way of creating information and making it accessible to community groups if we were truly to be able to work in full partnership with them," said David Jones, the Service Delivery Manager for Buckinghamshire Libraries.
"Basic lending details were available on the main library database, but the community groups were not permitted by our security protocols to access details behind the Council’s computer firewall such as statistics, training materials, contact lists and newsletters.
Fortunately, a low-cost low-maintenance solution soon emerged thanks to the ICT team which chose to use password-protected Google sites over the internet to set up new shared web sites for the armies of volunteers.
A company called Arcus Global was employed to create demo sites for the Council and these were then shown to the first community groups taking over the libraries. Changes were made following feedback from the groups and the first live site was handed over in October 2011. Not all the libraries use the system, but it has become an essential part of the network as it grows ever larger.
There are currently 15 community libraries across the county, with the 16th opening at Winslow on September 1. Savings of hundreds of thousands pounds per year are being made, since a 2010 consultation, as a result of the Council transferring libraries to voluntary groups.
Andy Foster, the County Council’s Business Relationship Manager, said the beauty of the Google system, based in ‘the cloud’, is its flexibility. "There is no back end infrastructure and no big upfront investment. If we get more volunteers needing this, then you simply get more licences," he said.
Martin Phillips, Buckinghamshire County Council's Cabinet Member for Community Engagement added: "We had to think outside the box to find this IT solution and our ICT staff did a great job in creating this for us.
"It’s difficult to think how we could have kicked off this new community partnership without doing this and giving our volunteers full and easy access to all the background material they need."
The library policy since 2010 has been so successful that Buckinghamshire has been praised as an example of best practice by Locality, a national community network charity, which says the authority stands out with regards to its pro-active approach to working with the community.