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Shredding the paper processes


21 October 2015

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Deploying a digital expenses system has cut costs for more than 1,000 NHS employees in the south: the shift from paper to online has been a great success

Deploying a digital expenses system has cut costs for more than 1,000 NHS employees in the south: the shift from paper to online has been a great success

Tracking and managing staff expenses in any organisation has always been a hugely manual and time-consuming task. NHS South, Central and West Commissioning Support Unit [SCW CSU] approached it no differently. We used paper-based and manual functions for the submission of expenses forms and, as you can imagine, we experienced lost forms, paper storage costs, poor communication back to staff about the status of claims and pay, slow reimbursement of costs and incomplete audit trails.   
SCW CSU provides operational support to 25 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and 1,200 NHS employees in the south. But those employees are spread across a very wide area – it is a truly scattered customer base with NHS employees working from East Sussex to Cornwall and up to Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Our managers are not always in the office either, but work from remote sites, visiting CCGs or working from home.
We have recently deployed cloud-based staff expenses software from Software Europe. The online cloud system enables staff to submit their own expense claims – including scanned receipts – from any location via any device. This instantly solves issues with missing receipts, tracking the paper flow, printing costs and paper storage. The claims can be reviewed and approved online – with automated communication back to staff. Plus, the cloud software has great auditing powers for managers.

How it helps staff
The feedback generally from staff about self-service expenses has been positive. I think everyone instantly recognised that
an automated, electronic system
for expense claims would ensure quicker reimbursement and clearer communication at all stages. Every member of staff wants that.
We’re even saving time by linking the software and, automating the flow of expenses information, to McKesson, our payroll provider. This saves any ‘re-keying’ of expenses information by McKesson’s team into its own payment system. We’ve actually raised this very important point with NHS England; if we’re reducing workload for the payroll provider – by automating processes and reducing re-keying of information – that must be helping to reduce costs.   
To get everyone up and running quickly we produced user guides, training sessions for expenses; we hosted drop-in sessions at CCG sites and identified dedicated project managers to champion the roll-out of expenses within our customer base. Plus, fortunately, lots of our CSU staff also collocate with our CCG customers, so they could provide on-site support directly when any questions needed answering.
An expenses policy is also very important – this provides employees with a high level view of what is expected and specifically guides the employee on what is and isn’t an acceptable expense. A policy also provides the practical advice for how claims can be made, the procedure of adhering to policy, processing an expense and monitoring the claims.
For SCW CSU, an expenses policy is vital because it lets our employees and customers know where they stand, what they can and can’t claim for and to what limit.
Financially, an expenses policy cuts the cost of doing business by providing a robust expenses control function. It also throws out the era of ‘guesstimate’ loopholes that have occurred in the past. The grey areas are gone and there is a clear mark between acceptable and unacceptable.

Technology infrastructure
It was important to ensure that everyone could access expenses. It wouldn’t take much to put people off. Firstly, we involved IT in our project groups. Secondly, we made sure our networks could be the appropriate platform for everyone to access the service.
We didn’t really need to worry about licensing, infrastructure or even an N3 connection (NHS broadband network) because it was all taken care of by Software Europe. As a desktop-based business our team and most of our customers already have access to PCs and laptops, which helps.
It has a range of built-in rules, flags and limits that help our staff and customers correctly claim for expense items. Plus, the mileage function is accurate at working out the best route from one site to another using complex algorithms.
Also, storing years’ worth of paper receipts can accrue significant storage costs, not to mention staff costs and overheads to manage them. A significant proportion of company outgoings are staff expenses and, I think, to call their storage a burden wouldn’t be unduly harsh. I’m thankful this is now managed digitally.
For anybody else looking to do the same rollout, I’d suggest they check out the supplier options carefully – really do your homework to ensure they’re going to be suitable. Follow these steps:

  • Ask for references. Any established business will be able to present written references and or put you in touch with happy customers.
  • Check the suppliers’ security credentials. Does the supplier have ISO/IEC 27001:2013 certification? Is the supplier rated on the NHS’s Information Governance Toolkit, the internal security check used by NHS organisations?
  • Visit their premises. You don’t want to be buying a critical application from a garden shed business. Check their uptime stats too and find out where your data will be held.
  • Don’t forget about the end-user experience. Our staff and CCG customers are really important. We want them to have a good experience. Look at the expenses system in terms of its ease of use. Does it need lots of training? Is there a supportive mobile app? How can users share feedback on the service? Is there a forum or voting system for new features?

Dealing with expenses can be a challenge that will only grow with the size of the organisation, but using an electronic expenses system can help to manage it
more effectively. I think it’s entirely possible that the future of staff expenses will be paper-less.

Matt Wall, consult HR operational lead, NHS South, Central and West Commissioning Support Unit.

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