E-government moves up a gear

Spare a thought for all those poor local authority IT directors out there. Just as they look set to meet Tony Blair's 2005...

Spare a thought for all those poor local authority IT directors out there. Just as they look set to meet Tony Blair's 2005 e-government targets, just as they are grappling with the demands and complexities imposed by the Freedom of Information Act, along comes another demand.

No one in local authority IT management could really have been surprised when e-government minister Phil Hope stood up and presented them with a new target - of making £1.2bn in savings through improved efficiency by 2007/2008.

Central government has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into local authority IT since the prime minister, at the height of the dotcom boom, decreed that all government services would be put online. Inevitably, Downing Street and Whitehall want to see some return on their investment.

The most progressive local authority IT departments long ago made sure that their e-government delivery programme involved back-office reorganisation and modernisation as well as the creation of online services.

But in many authorities the new target will require a step change in how IT departments operate. This could be particularly taxing for those departments that used the prime minister's e-government enthusiasm to launch a series of pilot projects in the hope that long-term funding could be secured once the initial seed money had been spent. Some pet projects will certainly have to go.

However, this is not where the real battle will lie. The most important challenge will be in meeting the mantra of the private sector - aligning IT with the business. It is in ensuring that IT is at the heart of the changes that local authorities will have to make to meet the government's efficiency savings targets.

Put simply, IT has to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Blair's e-government edict has created a good launch pad for making this happen. Many council IT managers seized the opportunities created by the 2005 e-government targets.

They appreciated the raised profile of IT within local authorities and took full advantage of the fresh faces with fresh skills who were brought into the public sector, attracted more by the prospect of working on innovative projects than by the financial rewards.

The determination to hit the e-government targets must now be matched by a similar determination to meet the new efficiency savings targets. Without it there is a real danger that much of the good work done so far will simply unravel.

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