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Government IT: There is no silver bullet for successful business transformation, says Socitm

Society report highlights complexity of achieving transformation

Joining large-scale shared services centres will not be the answer for every council looking to transform its business model, according to the Society of IT Management.

In a paper setting out how local authorities should transform their businesses, Socitm has put forward a range of measures for councils to choose from.

The Challenge of Transformation document says, "Transformation is too complex for simple, formulaic approaches. Management approaches, such as flexible working, shared services, information management, knowledge sharing and workflow, could well play a part.

"Top-down change has a poor success rate, particularly when it involves business process re-engineering."

The Socitm report stresses that simply upgrading IT systems or introducing new applications will fail to transform local authorities.

"As transformation concerns imagination and innovation, the end goal is unclear. Finding a solution involves much more than engineering a system."

According to the report, business transformation projects in local government are faced with four major obstacles to success: resistance from staff who fear job cuts, the absence of a supportive culture, problems with traditional management thinking, and service users' ignorance about IT.

And for Socitm, these stumbling blocks are not helped by the wider context, with the impetus for many business transformation projects coming from the need to meet centrally imposed efficiency savings targets through job cuts.

It is two years since the Treasury set a target of making £21.5bn of cost cuts in the public sector, publishing a report by former Office of Government Commerce head Peter Gershon that set efficiency savings for every part of the public sector, including local government.

The other crucial issue highlighted by the report is that many of those efficiency savings were to be achieved by cutting jobs.

The Challenge of Transformation warns IT managers that council employees and their unions understand that most business transformation projects will lead to job cuts.

"Quite obviously, unless the political direction is to improve the quality of services, efficiency improvement equates to a need for fewer people.

"People can easily try to maintain the status quo and wreck projects through tactics such as non-cooperation, failing to engage with initial fact-finding, dreaming up all manner of rationalisations for why change should not happen, and not using the system properly."

Given this, Socitm argues that those employees who will be affected by business transformation need to be well-supported throughout the project, from the moment that the change is first announced.

The behaviour of senior management is also critical, since in those cases where management teams have demonstrated transparency, engaged with employees and engendered trust, the council has been more likely to deliver a successful project.

However, the report warns that technology is still likely to get the blame for any failure when the real culprit is staff resistance to change.

According to the report, the lack of a supportive culture for business transformation projects can also be due to the actions of senior managers in the past.

"Management can do nothing about what has gone on previously. We suggest that those management teams that have encountered trouble with groups of employees or their representatives, will require plenty of time to prepare the ground before embarking upon a major transformation exercise."

In a similar vein, traditional management thinking is the third obstacle to a successful project, with management-imposed, top-down business transformation having a high failure rate in the public sector.

"Transformational change can be every bit as threatening to the manager as it is to the team," says the report.

"Management insecurity stems from finding that, as one has climbed to the top of the organisational ladder, someone has taken [the ladder] away."

The report highlights how middle management jobs are particularly under threat because middle managers are no longer needed to pass on instructions from senior management. Improved IT systems will also remove the need for middle managers to aggregate information for council leaders.

This trend will mean that those delivering front-line services will be expected to collaborate with their colleagues both to cut the local authority's costs and to improve the service to customers.

However, the report still argues that the most substantial obstacle to business transformation is service heads' ignorance about IT.

"Some heads of IT may lack credibility with service managers because previous projects have overrun their budget, time or cost, or failed to deliver the anticipated service benefits.

"An informed dialogue about how services can exploit IT requires technology managers who can relate to service requirements as well as service managers who have at least a basic understanding of the enabling technologies."

According to Socitm, councils could be more successful with their business transformation projects if they appointed a single senior manager with overall responsibility for delivering IT-enabled projects. The manager would be a CIO who understood change management and also had a detailed knowledge of both IT systems and business processes.

Watmore prepares implementation plan for t-government

Ian Watmore is putting the finishing touches to the document that will spell out how the public sector should implement transformational change.

The head of the prime minister's delivery unit, who was Whitehall's CIO until January, expects to publish the implementing transformational government document before the new financial year.

Watmore published a consultation document last November containing proposals for how all public sector bodies could both improve customer services and cut costs through IT-enabled projects.

Speaking at last month's Society of IT Management Business Transformation conference, Watmore said, "The main thrust of the comments on the consultation paper is that they agree with the strategy, but how are we going to deliver it?"

Last November's document said, "Bodies awarding funding should presume that public service organisations only deliver good value for money when they standardise and share services with others."

Watmore is also working on the comprehensive spending review, which will set spending levels across the public sector from 2008 to 2011.

At the Socitm conference, he said, "The financial position in the public sector has hardened - the efficiency review is only just picking up speed. Right now is the time to influence spending decisions; it's a very important time in the journey that we are on."

Read article: Why small is beautiful for councils


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This was first published in March 2006

 

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