IT managers association urges public sector bosses to raise their profile.
With Tony Blair's e-government agenda gathering pace, IT has rarely enjoyed a higher political profile. Yet the role of IT management in the public sector is hardly seen as influential or prestigious. The Society of IT Management, the organisation that represents local government IT managers, hopes to change this situation.
As councils rush to get services online in time to meet the 2005 target, Socitm is putting its weight behind ambitious training projects intended to raise the profile of its members.
IT managers and directors have sometimes struggled to gain a place on the board, or other leadership positions in government. Far from being seen as a core part of a council's business, IT has often been perceived as an add-on or a cost centre.
While the internet and e-commerce have started to change the way that businesses perceive technology, local government IT managers are still struggling to win a seat at the top tables of their organisations.
For this reason, newly elected Socitm president Fahri Zihni has vowed to boost the profile of the IT profession at a national level during the coming year. He said Socitm is currently in consultation with the British Computer Society, E-Skills UK, Intellect and the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists to set up a joint programme of action to raise the profile of local government IT professionals.
"This is a national issue because the profile of the IT profession is low compared with the likes of accountancy and the legal profession," he said.
But working with other high-profile organisations to present a unified front is only part of the story; Socitm believes that education is key to placing IT managers in the driving seat of local government.
A recent report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is responsible for overseeing UK e-government, revealed that nearly three-quarters of councils lack the expertise to develop effective e-government services.
Zihni, who was formerly Socitm's education secretary, has identified training as key to placing IT managers at the forefront of their organisations. With this in mind, the head of IT at Wolverhampton City Council has been instrumental in developing a new MBA scheme for local government IT managers.
The Open University programme will be part-funded by Socitm, and Zihni expects the first students to start their course of study later this year. "Hopefully the MBA will demonstrate to board members that IT professionals can be just as good managers and board members as anybody else," he said.
Socitm also plans to introduce a continuous professional development scheme, which will be available to all the society's full and associate members. By receiving points for activities such as attending courses, IT professionals will be able to prove that they are keeping up to date with the latest developments in both technology and local government.
"The continuous professional development scheme is a concept that is well understood by many professions - it makes it clear to the hierarchy that we are professionals and we are developing our skills," Zihni said.
Former Socitm president Robin Carsberg said schemes to boost the profile of the IT profession have been thin on the ground in the past few years. "There have been a couple of welcome initiatives, such as secondments, where IT managers have gone into the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office, but I am not aware of many initiatives of this [professional development] type," he said.
Carsberg, now an IT consultant, said the scheme is good news for IT managers at a time when e-government is at the heart of service delivery. "A lot of councils now have IT [represented] as a major board member but there is always work to be done, and that is where the CPD links in." The continuous professional development scheme reviews academic and technical skills that council IT staff need to deliver e-government, he added.
Local government IT managers have welcomed Socitm's attempts to raise the profile of the profession through education. Joe Daniels, community information manager at Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council, said, "Anything that keeps the level of skills current with the requirements and technologies of the day has to be useful to us."
However, Daniels said some authorities, including Knowsley, are already working to keep their IT staff up to date with the latest skills. He said, "We already have an MBA scheme and all our IT staff have qualified for the European computer driving licence."
Meeting the 2005 e-government target could be much more than just a headache for local government IT managers. It also presents an opportunity for them to move to the forefront of how their councils operate. "The modernisation requirements of local authorities and government departments have increased the reliance on IT managers and pushed them into a more influential position," said Daniels.
The government is planning a programme to help all council staff, including IT managers, to meet the needs of the e-government agenda. A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister promised that more details on the initiative will be announced later in the spring, and confirmed that the department is liaising with top public sector bodies.
"We are working with Socitm, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Improvement and Development Agency to build a support and capacity function to help all council managers, elected members and officers to meet the challenge of the e-government agenda," he said.
Skills and training are likely to be high on the agenda at Socitim's spring seminar, which takes place in Essex today (29 April).
The run-up to 2005, although it promises to be a hectic period for council IT departments, could also present an opportunity for managers to boost their skills and move into the limelight.
Carsberg said, "There is no doubt that the development of e-government and e-government strategies has given the IT manager an opportunity to become more centre stage."