Central government is in danger of making a grave mistake if it forces local authorities to adopt shared services against their will. You would be hard-pressed to find a single IT professional who did not think shared services are, in principle, an excellent way forward. But ask them to point to successful examples of shared services, particularly in the public sector, and it is a quite different story.
That is why so many local authority IT leaders are concerned that Ian Watmore, head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, and John Oughton, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, should appear so keen to mandate shared services.
Whitehall's warnings could not be more blunt. Watmore told the Society of IT Management's Business Transformation conference that the funding of local authorities beyond 2008 would almost certainly assume substantial savings from shared services, which could only be achieved by large numbers of local authorities working together.
No one would deny that cross-authority and cross-agency working can deliver major benefits, but mandates from above, particularly those accompanied by threats of financial sanctions, can create the perfect conditions for IT project failure.
It can create a political quagmire as executives try to hang on to their empires and staff to their jobs. Without buy-in, change projects fail.
The most advanced organisations face being held back by those with the least-developed IT. The most innovative face being shackled by being part of a larger, inevitably slower-moving group.
Also, organisations all have contracts that cannot be aggregated or redefined until they expire, and they certainly can't be railroaded to fit an arbitrary timetable laid down by Whitehall.
If delivering shared services in the public sector were easy, Whitehall would have done it years ago. Alas, high-profile shared services projects are few and far between. That is why if Whitehall wants to see shared services across local authorities, a carrot, not a stick, will work best.
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