The Socitm Insight research into outsourcing comes at a critical time for local government IT. The deadline to make government services available electronically by the end of the year is fast approaching.
The report said IT services must be credible in order to make e-government deliver improvements to service. "A large slice of that credibility must come from what users think of the service they receive and the degree to which ICT helps them deliver high-quality service," it said.
Beyond the e-government deadlines, local government must achieve 2.5% efficiency savings by 2008, according to the Gershon Efficiency Review. Socitm sees IT as critical to achieving this goal, but it must be credible and embedded into council processes.
The research found this was not always the case. "Transformation of front-line services can only work if the ICT service supporting the change also works," the report said. "Heads of ICT in local public services just cannot afford to ignore the key messages."
The report said as political demands for local government efficiency continue there will be an increased focus on the credibility of IT service delivery.
It offers a stark conclusion for local government IT outsourcing. "There seems little point in going for an apparently more efficient service if those who use it see it as a step backwards in the service they receive at a time when they themselves are likely to be under pressure to deliver a transformed service."
Although Martin Greenwood, programme manager at Socitm Insight, said IT outsourcing can improve councils' performance and can bring in resources, it does need to get over its image problem if council services are going to improve in a way central government expects.
"Looking at e-government and the efficiency saving, you see that it depends on IT being credible and being seen to be credible. A poor perception of IT from end-users is detrimental to that credibility," he said.
"Objective measures are OK but you need to have users believing [IT outsourcing] is a good deal. There are some councils that do it better than others. There are those who are better dealing with problems, do solve them efficiently and do get their messaging right."
Councils with outsourcing arrangements cannot continue to ignore the importance of communicating the benefits to end-users, Greenwood said.
"The reason people go into these deals is varied. They can be for new investment and infrastructure, but you cannot go on with people grumbling about the service," he said.
Although IT outsourcing may be in favour with consultants and some senior council staff, unless it gets over its image problem with council workers, it will struggle to help councils address the agenda set by central government.
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