Transforming local government IT

Local government IT leaders face an urgent and fundamental challenge.

Local government IT leaders face an urgent and fundamental challenge. The recession means there is greater pressure than ever on both council services and departmental budgets. The need to deliver services in as effective and efficient a manner as possible has never been more pressing, yet at the same time the resources available...

to bring about this change have never been so scarce. Despite more than 10 years talking about "transformative e-government", in many cases efficiencies have not been realised to anything close to what is needed.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of councils' online services. A recent report from public sector IT managers' forum Socitm analysed the take-up and use of more than 500 public sector websites. The "Better Connected 2009" report found a failure rate for online transactions of between 10% and 40%, even at the most web-savvy councils.

"That means many web enquiries simply reappear as more costly phone or face-to-face enquiries, so the web ends up being a source of wasteful avoidable contacts, rather than a means of reducing the cost to serve," says Peter Gallon, Socitm vice-president and head of ICT for Northumberland County Council.

And we are not talking marginal differences here - the financial implications of these failures are huge. "Widely quoted figures for channel costs in local government are 17 pence per enquiry for the web, as opposed to £4 for phone enquiries and £7.81 for face-to-face enquiries," says Gallon.

In other words, a failed web enquiry will cost either 25 times or 45 times more than a successful one. "Given the growing popularity of the web, this is a problem that requires urgent attention," Gallon adds.

Internal resistance

So why is the failure rate so high? Richard Steel, Socitm's former president and until recently CIO of Newham Borough Council, says, "It is partly because, certainly in the early and middle years of the e-government campaign, councils paid a lot of lip service to transformation, while in reality there was a lot of internal resistance to joining up silos. Many focused on the easy things like putting basic information online, without moving sufficiently quickly in other areas."

However, Steel believes the situation is set to improve. "In Newham, for example, we recently went through a major internal reorganisation and as a result the council today has a world-class back office. That means all the emphasis has now moved to the front office, where we were frankly as bad as everyone else in terms of not joining up our services well enough. Now, because of the economic situation, management changes and a more effective push from central government, I think we really will start to see things change quite dramatically for the better."

Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council and a vice-president of Socitm, agrees nothing is focusing minds like the current economic crisis. "The severe financial pressures will inevitably bring into question all of our major programmes and activities," says Creese. "And certainly most of those I'm involved in are specifically designed to modernise, to improve services and to save money. If anything, the pressure is on to release those savings even quicker."

Creese says in terms of boosting the success rates of web transactions, the focus needs to shift away from what is convenient for councils and on to the people who will actually be using the services. "A lot of council websites and transaction services have been designed to ensure our own efficiency, when really we need to design them around the public. That requires a much more thorough review of how we manage and deliver them. It is not just a case of sticking transactions online and publicising them well, you have rethink how you do them altogether," he says.

That is now happening. "The financial pressures are encouraging councils to do exactly that. Once you have a well-designed system and an end-to-end transaction that is quick and easy, people use it. And there are good examples in the public sector. For instance online road tax licensing and passport applications are simpler and faster than in the past, and as a result take-up is high."

Mobile access

Another area that needs more attention is making automated council services available through mobile phones and smartphones. Simon Moores, ward councillor and cabinet member for customer services at Thanet District Council, as well as vice-chairman of the Conservative Technology Forum, says that, particularly in less affluent areas, the people who make the most use of council services are far more likely to have access to, and be comfortable with, using a mobile phone than a desktop computer.

"Mobiles are pervasive, which is why it is key to offer access on these devices if you want to boost take-up," he says. Councils also need to make sure their systems are prepared for what he calls "the Jeremy Kyle effect" - there is a big spike of demand as soon as the popular daytime show finishes, similar to the electricity spikes seen at half-time in the FA cup final when everyone boils their kettle.

Cost versus savings

But isn't there a danger that fundamentally transforming services, with all the associated costs of change management, will be beyond the reach of many cash-strapped councils in the current climate?

Hampshire's Creese acknowledges the potential problem, but says much of the inherent cost of change can be offset against the savings made as a result of increasing the take-up of lower-cost web transactions and switching off more expensive delivery channels. Local government IT managers need to replicate the best, most efficient practices across the sector, which organisations such as Socitm work to highlight.

"If you are simply bolting on your web services without any change to underlying processes, you are not going to release the level of savings you otherwise might," says Creese. "But it does not take a great deal of effort to look at Socitm or search the web and find out what some of these best practices are, or to contact individual organisations and ask how they did it.

"And there are lots of neat little tricks that don't cost much. For instance, you want to encourage people to renew library books online because it is much cheaper than a librarian doing it at a desk or over the phone. Some councils have seen that sending out a reminder with the books, pointing out to people that they can renew online and explaining how they do it, has a big impact on the take-up of the service."

But are most council IT leaders up to the challenges ahead? Creese says, "I meet many who are extremely talented and highly competent. There are still quite a number of traditional, technically-focused IT managers, but some of the cleverest solutions for driving efficiencies are coming from these people. The challenge now is getting them more involved in change leadership and focusing on using IT to generate business value."


Can open data help councils cut costs and speed up innovation in services? 

The father of the web Tim Berners-Lee believes that if organisations open up their data and systems online, third parties will use them to build innovative and compelling tailored services. Along with Professor Nigel Shadbolt of Southampton University, Berners-Lee is advising the government on this issue, and the Prime Minister recently praised their work and pledged his continuing support.

Examples such as FiXMyStreet, a service designed by social enterprise, show what is possible. Since 2007, people have been able to report problems on their local streets via a simple web interface. More recently, FixMyStreet has released an iPhone app that means people can take a photograph of a pothole or other problem while they are out and about. The app automatically records their location and submits the information to the relevant council, as well as tracking progress with any repair or resolution. It has already resulted in the repair of 19,000 potholes alone.

Given the need to provide services in an increasingly personalised way, on an increasing number of devices, could opening up data provide a low-cost shortcut to service innovation for cash-strapped councils? Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council, is cautiously optimistic. "It is early days, but in principle providing common data for anybody to work with could drive the kind of innovation and creativity we need. When you are talking about sensitive data such as financial or personal information, it is trickier, but for public data, I strongly support what Tim Berners-Lee is trying to achieve. The more we can open up publicly held data for the public good, the better."

Read more on E-commerce technology