Blair's drive boosts town hall IT

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Blair's drive boosts town hall IT

Mike Simons
The latest survey into local authority IT spending shows the age of e-government is on the way. But the Society of ITManagement warns that there is still resistance and difficulty in meeting government targets.

Local government spending on IT has risen for the first time in a decade, according to the annual IT Trends survey produced by the Society of IT Management (Socitm).

This increase is a result of prime minister Tony Blair's drive to e-government. But the survey reveals many local authority IT chiefs still face resource and skills problems in providing applications to make e-government work.

There is a growth in outsourcing, partnership with the private sector and use of consultants. The latter has risen for the sixth year.

Local authorities are still not bound to deliver all services electronically by 2005. Yet it has become the de facto deadline and is likely to be a mandatory part of the Best Value regime.

Socitm questioned 400 local authority heads of information and communications technology (ICT) and chief executives in England, Wales and Scotland. It produced the UK's most authoritative analysis of public sector IT.

The survey found understanding of Blair's e-government proposals among chief officers and councillors was patchy or poor in 75% of authorities.

Many heads of IT also reported it was increasingly difficult to provide services to their authorities. E-government requires new applications and councils do not have the resources.

In accordance with government guidelines, more than three-quarters of authorities have prepared an e-government strategy. Similarly, a third of authorities have followed Whitehall's lead and appointed e-champions to oversee the strategy's implementation.

Some 55% of e-champions are on the council management team. The chief executive takes the role in 13% of authorities and the head of IT in 30%.The role is full-time in only 10% of councils. In 42% of cases, it occupies less than than 10% of time.

Brian Westcott, who compiled the report, told Computer Weekly, "Each authority has to work out arrangements best suited to itself. Socitm believes the job is 'leading', with the 'doing' by others."

He also suggested many appointments remain to be formalised. This is because there was disagreement bet-ween chief executives and heads of IT as to whether an appointment had been made in more than 50 authorities.

Joined-up government

Government efforts to develop seamless public services have won enthusiastic support from local authorities - 84% have initiatives to improve integration of services within the council, and 70% with other organisations.

Again, the survey raised key questions. "Much information exchanged between organisations must be ad-hoc, because there is little evidence of shared information systems," said Westcott.

He also warned some IT directors and chief executives were wary about the Government's targets.

"The survey reveals Socitm members are generally happy with the e-government targets," said Westcott, "but many feel there is a danger of providing electronic services for the sake of it, regardless of what the public wants.

"Each local authority should think what is best for themselves, rather than doing everything electronically to satisfy targets."

Which technologies?

The survey looked at technologies used to deliver electronic services and contained few surprises - Internet and e-mail dominate. There is growing interest in call centres and customer relationship management. Only 17% of authorities have a call centre. But 63% said they expect to introduce one over the next year.

Document management technologies are now used by 50% of authorities, mainly in revenues. Benefits and significant growth in use is predicted.

Some authorities have developed smartcard applications for accessing, or paying for, council services. These have proved expensive, difficult to implement and growth is too slow.

ICT staff resources

Socitm estimates local authorities employ about 18,300 ICT staff, a figure that has remained constant since the mid-1990s. As a result of outsourcing, it estimates there are a further 2,000 "virtual staff".

Staff turnover, which rose in 1998 and 1999, dropped in the last year to 8%. Recruitment problems have eased, but more than 70% of leavers went to new jobs outside the public sector. This has left IT directors reporting difficulty in attracting qualified staff with particular skills.

For the first time, Socitm profiled heads of IT and found a "disappointingly predictable" 86% were male. The median age was 48, "a very high age for a supposedly young profession," the survey noted.

Best value

The Best Value legislation requires authorities to review all services every five years. However, the Government has set no performance indicators for IT.

Socitm devised its own key performance indicators. The survey reveals disparities in total cost of ownership, user satisfaction and costs per connection and the percentage of successfully completed projects.

Westcott said he hoped the Government would adopt Socitm's inducators and told Computer Weekly of plans to create benchmarking clubs across the UK.

Socitm IT trends 2000/1 Toward E-government: Society of Information Technology Management, PO Box 121, Northampton, NN4 6TG. To obtain a copy e-mail: bw@chester-uk.demon.co.uk

Obstacles to delivering e-government

  Average rating  
Issue Heads of ICT Chief executives
Funding 4.1 4.1
Too many initiatives to cope with 3.8 3.7
Conflicting priorities of organisations with 3.7 3.5
respect to developing joined up service    
Poor management and co-ordination 3.5 3.2
between organisations    
Lack of integration between internal services 3.5 2.9
Skill shortages 3.4 3.3
Security and confidentiality concerns 3.3 3.1
Political support within council 2.7 2.4
The Government's approach 2.3 2.1
Scale: 1= no problem; 5= major problem

Key performance indicator - measurement data

Measurement No of responses Lower Median Quartile Upper Quartile
Average user satisfaction 99 3.2 3.5 3.8
% calls resolved in agreed time 98% 72% 85% 93%
% of successful projects        
- on time 52 75% 85% 93%
- within budget 49 80% 90% 100%
- achieving benefits 38 85% 96% 100%
Total cost of ownership per workstation 51 £785 £1053 £1265
Cost per connection - voice network 79 £119 £165 £218
Cost per connection - data network 88 £119 £206 £328
Support costs per workstation 90 £169 260 £374
No of workstations supported per specialist 103 85 125 181
Ratio of workstations to employees 101 33 54 84

Technology trends

Compaq, Sun, Dell, ICL and IBM are the main suppliers of processing capacity used by local authorities. Half of all councils still have a mainframe, but use is declining. Ninety per cent now use Unix systems.

Most authorities use Microsoft Windows and NT. Many will phase out earlier operating systems and replace them with Windows 2000 over the next two years. Linux use is expected to grow. Novell, used by two-thirds of authorities, is predicted to decline.

Authorities were asked about data storage, with just 10 saying they had a storage area network (San) and 77 considering one. Most had no plans to install Sans.

The survey reported slow development of thin-client computing with 32% of authorities using technology, up from 17% last year. The installed base was just 5,300 devices, a 6% increase on last year.

"This is a modest growth in a technology needing to prove itself to gain acceptability," said Socitm. "Only 14 authorities have more than 100 users. One county has 400."

Key benefits of thin-client technology were listed as easier support to remote users, improved management of the desktop and reduced total cost of ownership.

The disadvantages cited were high start-up costs, inadequate supplier support, configuration problems and patchy performance.

Spending on ICT

Budgeted expenditure on ICT in 2000/1 is estimated at £1.11bn for all local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland.

This includes central and departmental budgets for ICT and telephones (excluding call charges). ICT budgets have risen by 7.6% compared to 1999/2000, or 6.1% in real terms.

This is the first increase since 1993. Telephone equipment budgets have also risen, by 4%.

Many authorities continue to obtain external funding for IT projects from sources such as National Grid for Learning, European Union, the Lottery and the Government's Invest to Save programme. Socitm estimate these account for a further £205m of ICT spending.

It also carried out a post mortem on the Y2K expenditure. It appears to have cost local government about £313m in total. But ICT chiefs claimed only half the total was spent on remedial work. The rest went on replacing obsolete software and equipment.


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