Westminster City Council is planning to be one of the first local authorities to go completely infrastructure-free. By 2015, the council will not control any of its IT infrastructure, but will outsource everything to suppliers, who will be responsible for day-to-day IT management.
The move is only the start of the trend that will lead to a fundamental change in the way public sector IT departments, and ultimately private sector IT departments, operate.
The outsourcing strategy will alter the role of the internal IT department, says David Wilde, who took over as chief information officer at Westminster a month ago. Staff will assume the role of a well-informed, "intelligent customer". They will need to keep up to date on the latest industry developments and develop a broader set of skills.
"The IT department will be left with a need to retain visibility with what's going on in the industry," he says. "We should be looking for the opportunity to use upcoming technologies. Staff will need to be extremely well informed."
Westminster's IT staff will need to learn more about supplier management and understand how contracts work. And Wilde says he will be looking to take on more staff with commissioning experience and project management skills.
It is too early to know if there will be any job losses. But Wilde acknowledges that in a period of upheaval, it could be difficult to retain the in-house IT expertise.
Robert Morgan, director at supply-side consultancy Hamilton Bailey, says it will only be a matter of time until outsourcing all IT services becomes the normal way of working.
"Westminster is at the forefront of these types of advances," he says. "Local government is constantly inhibited by shortages of funds, so getting rid of your infrastructure is the way forward. I wouldn't expect to see it being taken up quickly by other councils, but it's a trend and it will catch on - these guys are the pioneers."
The main benefit of outsourcing is the increased flexibility it offers to councils. Minor changes in legislation by parliament can cause big practical problems for the local authorities. By handing over control to external suppliers, Westminster City Council will no longer be responsible for changing its own IT systems or infrastructure to meet changing demands from parliament.
But asking for this flexibility from suppliers could, at first, push council costs up, says Morgan. "The problem lies in how you write the contract. You need to try to anticipate the flexibility that you require and then find a supplier who's able to provide it.
"One of the risks in local authorities is that they don't control their own destiny. The government can pass a minor decree and that can, for example, increase the volumes of storage a council needs. If your contract isn't flexible enough to allow for peaks and troughs, then you could be in real trouble."
Wilde says this is one reason why central government needs to talk more to councils about legislation that will affect them. "There is still a huge disconnect between central and local government in technology," he says. "That needs to be resolved. We need to work together more and collaborate on the implications of legislative change."