Local authorities have seen more IT innovation in the last five years than ever before. The drive to meet e-government targets has seen record investment and the introduction of new technologies.
The next target, the transformational government agenda, will require just as much innovation. It will pose a particular challenge to IT departments as they strive to overhaul back-office systems while, because of their public service function, not taking risks that could damage delivery to clients.
Analysts say this means local authorities will look to gain efficiencies and cost reductions by deploying technologies that have already proved their worth in other sectors.
Among the technologies identified by analyst firm Gartner are voice over IP, open source development models and enterprise content management systems. It said these are proven technologies that can be implemented with little disruption to existing business processes.
Andrea Di Maio, a research vice-president at Gartner, said, "VoIP provides a quick win so we expect quick and significant investments. Open source provides cost advantages in some areas. And councils need a process in place to find public records for compliance with the Freedom of Information Act."
Herefordshire County Council will be one of the first large authorities to go live with a VoIP network when it lays cables to the last of its 200-plus sites next month. It began work on its network last November.
Julie Holmes, Herefordshire's head of ICT, said last autumn that she expected savings of "multiple millions over the next three to four years".
Some 2,100 council officers and other public sector employees will use the new network. The VoIP system will run on Cisco hardware and Siemens' Hipath DX and Hipath 4000 communications servers.
The service will be monitored from supplier Siemens Communications' network operations centre based in Wellingborough. Herefordshire's call centre runs on Siemens' Hipath Procenter system.
Di Maio said, "The first step of a VoIP implementation is to deliver efficiency. After that it will enable additional services and additional efficiency gains."
Local authorities may adopt uses of VoIP that have already led to productivity or efficiency gains in the private sector. For example, they could integrate their voicemail with their e-mail client to create a single mailbox, or integrate voice and data in Microsoft Outlook.
Being able to continue using Microsoft applications is important for local authorities because many have standardised on Windows XP as their operating system. Councils will also look to integrate their choice of mobile e-mail system into the single voice and data mailbox.
Gartner also sees councils making greater use of open source, but as a model for developing applications rather than as a replacement for Microsoft Windows or the Office desktop productivity suite.
Di Maio said, "If you think about open source as a replacement for Windows, it has never had momentum in the UK, but thinking about the other elements of open source is different."
UK councils could form alliances to develop open source applications in the same way as authorities in other countries. For example, eight French councils are cooperating to develop open source applications through a forum called Adullact. A group of local government bodies in the US also cooperates on open source application development.
In the UK, open source uptake in the public sector is less advanced. According to the Society of IT Management's annual survey of local authorities' technology priorities, few councils expect to work on open source in any area of their business.
The last Socitm survey in December found that fewer than 20% of councils would consider using open source for business critical systems, desktop applications or remote access.
However, more than 70% of authorities were considering using open source for web-based applications. Some 20% of councils were "very likely" to use open source for web applications.
Socitm, whose members are senior IT practitioners in local authorities and public sector organisations, surveyed 126 of the UK's 475 local authorities for its IT Trends survey.
Di Maio pointed to the customer relationship management national project, which is led by the London Borough of Newham, as an example of open source development. Although Newham leads the project, other councils contribute their ideas.
Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, for example, has contributed the processes behind an intranet-based application for monitoring progress to central government-imposed targets.
The council's E-pro system produces all the information needed to populate the Implementing Electronic Government form and the Annual Efficiency Statement. Every council has to complete both returns to comply with central government regulations.
Di Maio said that although UK local government tends not to use traditional open source licences for its collaborative projects, there is still scope to "expand the development community".
One increasingly important technology is enterprise content management systems, where suppliers have begun to offer cut-down versions of applications to meet the specific needs of local councils.
Di Maio said, "You now see stripped-down versions that offer clients a more palatable proposition. "
Adobe, Documentum and Hummingbird are all targeting local authorities with appropriately sized enterprise content management systems.
Some authorities are also using Adobe Intelligent Document for record management and then building a document management strategy around that.
In the Socitm IT Trends survey, content management was identified as the fourth most important technology behind CRM, electronic forms and workflow.
The joy of sharing
Local authorities are increasingly expected to share services with other councils and public sector bodies, such as the police and fire services.
Last autumn's Transformational Government consultation paper said that "bodies awarding funding should presume that public service organisations only deliver good value for money when they standardise and share services with others". This is likely to see demand for customer service centres with the capacity to run services for multiple councils.
The core back-office services - finance and human resources - will need to use standard systems and processes if they are to be shared between different public sector bodies. Public bodies will also have to share data without losing public trust.
Common standards for managing information, including customer records, will also need to be agreed.
Central government is encouraging several emerging identity management systems that will allow both public and private sectors to access services.