The localism opportunity for local government IT

There’s always plenty of talk about IT in central government and how the impending spending review will affect big Whitehall projects, and as a result sometimes IT in local government can be a little neglected.

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in local government IT, but I’ve had a very local government week.

On Tuesday I was part of the judging panel for the Local Government IT Excellence awards, organised by user group Socitm and IT trade body Intellect. Then yesterday I was invited to the annual Socitm President’s dinner, accompanied by the great and the good from council IT leadership.

So I had plenty of opportunity to judge the mood among local authority CIOs.

Not surprisingly, there is widespread trepidation about how the public sector spending cuts will affect councils – for example, the Local Government Association has warned that an expected funding shortfall of £20bn would be equivalent to the entire adult social care budget.

Socitm president Jos Creese, whose day job is CIO at Hampshire County Council, told guests at the dinner that the cutbacks could be an opportunity for IT leaders to be seen as drivers of strategic change, and not simply the people who run the computers. And there is clearly a growing realisation that IT is central to cutting costs across councils through enabling efficiency improvements – rather than simply being another department to slash budgets.

But there is a historic legacy that those CIOs still need to overcome.

Local authority IT can be horrendously siloed – both within and between councils. Different council departments often use different technology set-ups, making it difficult to reform those services and focus them around the citizen rather than the organisational structure. Greater service integration will be a big part of reducing the cost of the public sector.

If you go back 10 or 20 years, council IT decisions were notoriously competitive. If one authority bought IBM, its neighbour would buy HP. Today, however, there are increasing examples of collaborative working and shared services that are streamlining and improving services – look out for the award winners for at least one such project.

In theory, councils should be a beneficiary – politically at least – of a David Cameron government. Localism is the big policy buzzword – but the reality is that localism will have to be delivered at the same time as big spending cuts; a difficult balance to achieve.

There remains a lot of bureaucracy and inefficiency in local authorities and removing both would only improve service provision and make it cheaper to deliver. One of the big challenges for local government IT leaders is to convince councillors that IT is the tool to make that happen, not another overhead to pay the price.

Much of the best practice in collaboration and shared services will need to become common practice.

But if all of local government IT can become as good as the best in local government IT, the sector stands to become am exemplar for the role of technology in future public service delivery.