Public service IT faces budget challenges

It is going to be a very difficult time for local government in the years ahead, writes Simon Moores, Conservative district councillor for Westgate-on Sea.


It is going to be a very difficult time for local government in the years ahead, writes Simon Moores, Conservative district councillor for Westgate-on Sea.

I was fortunate to be present at the very beginning of the eGovernment revolution which changed the face of public services. Generous investment, the internet and the arrival of new technologies gave the public unprecedented access to local government and streamlined processes, such as planning and benefits, which had once been complex and impenetrable.

In 2009 one might argue that local government now finds itself at the wrong end of two financial cycles. The first involves the growing costs of a 'technology refresh' and the second, the more serious implications that now surround the public sector financial crisis; the worst since the end of the Second World War.

Councils are now struggling to cope with the fallout from the recession and are facing the prospect of as much as a 30% cut in their central government support if Treasury forecasts for the economy prove too optimistic. This in turn could lead to even larger cuts for some public services as the more essential are protected.

With the public sector now facing a period of unparalleled financial austerity, the effective use of technology becomes even more of a driving force in maintaining services, as both the budget and the workforce come under threat. Collectively, we need to genuinely re-think aspects of public service design and the pivotal role that technology plays in its consequent operation.

However, we have very limited room to manoeuvre. I was at a meeting of several neighbouring councils last month, where we spent half a day exploring the shared services route. Having had an alarming presentation on the prospect of 'Financial Armageddon', it was made clear that we had a very limited time in which to achieve harsh cuts in our budgets and create, from near thin air, a cost-effective shared services plan.

My own council, Thanet, has just published its 2009 strategy and in its pages you will find not only a commitment to the development of shared services to exploit Kent Connects and the Kent Public Services Network (KPSN), but the introduction of thin client computing technologies, open source software and a long-overdue migration from Novell's GroupWise. All of this will have to be implemented within the budget I have available.

It's my experience that the nature of the public procurement procedure invariably means that, in contrast with the private sector, what we have available in terms of ICT is frequently behind the curve - a result of the lowest bidder process - and often several years out of date. As a consequence, we need to be more joined-up, increasingly smarter in the way in which we integrate different processes and innovative in the way in which we use our existing solutions and partnerships with other authorities.

There comes a point however when doing more with less becomes unsustainable and - while we can be smarter about the application of the technologies we have available - as a nation, we may not have the time, solutions or funds to balance the demand and load that will be placed upon local government resources and services in the next year.

Simon Moores is Conservative district councillor for Westgate-on Sea, cabinet member for customer services and vice chairman (policy development) at The Conservative Technology Forum

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