As Whitehall's IT fiascos grab the headlines, local government is quietly becoming a hotbed of technology-driven process improvement, writes Myles Hewitt
Public sector IT has received more than its share of adverse publicity over the past few years. Troubles on big projects such as the NHS national programme, Child Support Agency systems and tax credits have grabbed the national headlines.
But there is also a lot of good news, with groundbreaking systems and applications being developed across the country. Local authorities responded with vigour to the challenge of the e-government agenda and they are now getting to grips with the demands of the next phase, the Transformational Government strategy launched last November.
On the ground, the massive sums poured into e-government and the demands for cost savings to be delivered through improved efficiency have translated into a wealth of applications covering such areas as mobile and wireless implementations, voice over IP (VoIP) telephone systems and customer relationship management.
In addition, regulatory pressures around privacy, freedom of information and the burgeoning requirement to store vast quantities of information such as e-mails has given new urgency to more established areas such as document management, data quality and information storage and retrieval.
The case studies by Arif Mohamed give a flavour of how implementations can produce substantial savings and introduce new ways of working. The London Borough of Hounslow has halved the cost of running its telephone system by switching to VoIP, but it is not simply about saving money, as the council has also benefited by the opportunity to add applications via the new system.
For Lewisham Primary Care Trust a biometric log-on application provides the twin benefits of increased security and a reduction in systems administration through cutting back on multifarious password log-ons.
At Leeds a digital pen and paper pilot promises to pave the way for a dramatic cut in paperwork and admin for home care workers as well as allowing them to spend more time out working in the field.
Applications such as these will always pay dividends so long as non-IT staff find them easy to use and see that they genuinely help them do their jobs better. The need for user buy-in is amply demonstrated by the problems associated with the NHS Choose and Book system, which has so far failed to generate much enthusiasm for its key user base – the GPs.
Now the government is betting the business on shared services. As Will Hadfield makes clear in his article on page 50, central government rhetoric has moved from general sounds of encouragement to detailed plans of how local authorities and other public sector bodies will be expected to share their back-¬office IT systems to save cash.
The effectiveness of shared services is absolutely dependent on councils buying in to the idea that there are clear benefits from linking up with others. Whatever encouragement and coercion the government may have in mind, it should remember that “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”.
Or as one local authority IT chief put it, “Why on earth should we do anything with a two-star authority when we are already a four-star authority?”