Council IT departments challenged by Best Value

Local authority IT services have been criticised in the first wave of government Best Value inspections, but there are good...

Local authority IT services have been criticised in the first wave of government Best Value inspections, but there are good prospects for improvement, according to an analysis of the first wave of inspectors' reports.

The Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), which carried out the survey, noted that of the first 76 Best Value assessments carried out up to 31 July, more than 70% were graded poor or fair. None received the top grade of excellent.

These results are more to do with council chief executives, senior officers and historic under investment in IT than with IT departments themselves, according to Socitm, which represents local authority IT directors.

"ICT managers will not be satisfied with the overall assessment of council information services," John Serle, chairman of the Socitm Best Value Group, commented.

"This has more to do with the attitude of councils rather than the effectiveness of the ICT department to run a tight ship. Local government, for a whole range of reasons, has in the past not invested well in ICT," he continued.

In a second key finding, the survey revealed that 68% of the Best Value assessments suggested the service would probably or definitely improve.

Martin Greenwood, programme manager for Socitm Insight, which produced the report, said the reports showed that many local authority IT departments were doing innovative work but, he added, it takes time to reshape organisations.

A common theme through the Best Value reviews Greenwood added was the need to align IT strategy with the authority's strategic aims.

"Local authorities are no different in this than other organisations," he said. "Improvement requires a lead from the top of the organisation - chief executives and elected members. The head of ICT has only got so much influence."

Other common areas for improvement identified by the Best Value reports and highlighted by Socitm, include:
  • The organisation's understanding of the power and opportunity offered by IT

  • Communication between technical staff and front line service providers

  • Balancing user demands for service with the IT service's ability to deliver

  • Appropriate provision of user training.

With local authority IT departments likely to face a tougher inspection regime in future, John Serle noted. "It is probable that weaknesses in service provision will require changes in culture, management and information systems."

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