- Published: 30 November -0001
When e-government minister Phil Hope stood up earlier this month and expressed his confidence that councils would meet the 2005 e-government deadline, council IT managers must have swallowed hard. For he also issued them with a new, even trickier objective: using e-services to save £1.2bn. According to Hope, the councils expect to meet the prime minister's target. The Implementing Electronic Government statements, submitted by every council in England, showed they were on track to meet the national target of delivering 100% of services online by the end of this year.
But achieving that target, set by the prime minister in 2000, could prove easier than meeting Hope's new target of using electronic services to deliver savings of £1.2bn by the 2007/2008 financial year.
The savings break down into £121m efficiency gains in 2004/ 2005 as a direct result of investment in local e-government, rising to £400m in 2007/2008, when savings from e-procurement are expected to take full effect.
Whether councils can achieve those sums will depend, in part, on whether the public take to electronic services in the way the government anticipates.
The targets will also require substantial efficiency savings in local government back-office processing, according to Glyn Evans, chairman of the information age government group at local authority IT managers organisation Socitm.
This would be a fundamentally different kind of challenge to that of putting council services online, Evans said. "The technical skills are the same but the organisational skills are very different. Putting services online is not about change, it is about doing something additional. Efficiency is helping business units do things differently, but not all business managers want to do things differently," he said.
"We are only just beginning to grapple with the agenda to deliver efficiency savings. Success will depend on how IT directors are seen in the organisation. If business managers see them as being able to deliver efficiency, the organisation will look to them for help."
The government's determination to get a return from its heavy IT investment since 1997 was encapsulated in last year's public spending review by Peter Gershon, which called for a 2.5% increase in government efficiency.
Eric Woods, government practice director at research firm Ovum, warned of anger in local authorities that this would translate into a simple focus on cost-cutting measures rather than extending services further.
Achieving the efficiency targets of central government would test IT managers' strengths, said Woods.
"Aligning IT and the business is far from easy. Organisational structures [in local authorities] create many complications. Reducing the gap between IT and the business is easy to say but hard to do. It will require strong leadership from IT managers."
But the legacy of Tony Blair's e-government targets could strengthen the hand of IT leaders when it comes to fighting for business process re-organisation within local authorities, according to Woods.
Blair's targets were "thought up during the dotcom hysteria and a rush to the web", said Woods. Although some of the initial targets proved spurious, the process focused local authorities' understanding on the capabilities of online services, he added.
Pressure from central government to get council services online increased the recognition and status of local government IT departments with the other business units.
"It has helped raise the profile of the IT departments and what it can deliver," said Woods. "It raised the profile of public sector IT and helped bring in new skills. Council members now recognise the importance of IT."
A new generation of council business managers understand the role IT can play in transforming the way local services are delivered, he said.
That industry experts think IT departments can lead the efficiency push shows how far they have come in the past five years. The prime minister announced the e-government deadlines in 2000, just as the dotcom hype was reaching its peak. Back then, local authority IT was not renowned for its technological innovation, but many councils have since risen to the challenge.
"The response of many councils has been impressive," said Woods. "Some IT departments have tackled e-government with imagination despite limited resources."
Those that have succeeded so far will have a good basis for coping with the challenge of delivering efficiency savings as well.
Quelle: ComputerWeekly, 15.02.2005