For New Labour to fulfil its spending promises without raising taxes, public sector IT managers must pull off a neat trick.
Last year, chancellor Gordon Brown announced a target of 2.5% efficiency savings across the public sector, which means central and local government departments must provide more services with less money.
Key to this productivity gain will be the effective use of IT, according to council IT managers' group Socitm. Socitm members will be at the heart of an efficiency drive, both by improving back-end processes and allowing the public to serve themselves on public sector websites.
This brings responsibility and new opportunities to enhance their status within their organisation, Socitm said in a report, E is for efficiency - an analysis of the ICT contribution to the Efficiency Review, published last week.
"The efficiency programme brings with it one clear opportunity for our members. Recognition of the strategic significance of IT supports the argument for a chief information officer role at the head of the service in each local authority," the report said.
"This is clearly a career opportunity for the head of IT, bringing with it the possibility of a more strategic role and a place at the 'top table'."
Angela Waite, chair of Socitm's performance management group, and head of ICT at Canterbury City Council, said public sector IT managers must continue to develop the skills they have learnt during the e-government programme if they are to deliver on the government's efficiency drive.
She said, "Heads of IT need to be more business aware rather than focusing on the technological aspects of the requirements. They need to understand the full range of services councils offer."
IT managers can convince business units they can help with the efficiency review by offering proven services that help them achieve their goals, Waite said.
"In Canterbury we put a benefits calculator on the council's website. Before this was available, people would have to visit benefits offices and fill in forms to see what they were entitled to. Since we have put the calculator on the web, feedback has shown that it is easy to use, saving time for customers and council staff. It is a simple piece of software and both sides benefit."
Waite said IT could also improve efficiency in back-office processes. Mobile working could create significant efficiency gains for many council workers who spend a lot of time out of the office. This could apply to environmental health officers and social workers and would bring the usual benefits associated with mobile working - allowing staff to access more council information outside the office, which will mean fewer visits back to the office and removing the need to re-key information once back at base.
But to use mobile technology effectively in the public sector, IT managers must understand the complexity of the working patterns of each professional group before they hand out laptops, said Socitm.
"In the past IT managers would provide a big computer in a room and give people access to it. Now they need to understand how the business works in the front and back office," said Waite.
For IT to deliver on its promise, local authorities must adopt a "corporate approach" to the government's efficiency drive, according to the Socitm report. This means leadership from the very top of an authority, with corporate planning disseminating information through the organisation.
"The IT manager will need to ensure that the corporate timetable is tied in to realistic plans to develop the IT infrastructure," the report said.
"There will be some authorities that do not recognise the efficiency programme in this way. They may treat it as a separate corporate initiative, or as one that can be devolved to individual service units. The head of IT should, in all cases, attempt to bring a corporate overview to the planning process."
Although this may seem a daunting task, Waite is convinced the experience of the e-government programme will boost IT managers in their effort to improve efficiency.
"IT managers have always been there to try to improve services and the efficiency review is just the next stage. It is not a poisoned chalice but an opportunity to find ways of using technology to improve the service. We have been agents for change before," said Waite.
With the e-government national projects drawing to a close at the end of this year, IT managers can use projects with proven business cases that will improve efficiency, Waite said. This should help them provide quick returns from investment to bring business units round to the idea that IT is core to the efficiency review.
Socitm is to publish a series of case studies to show how IT can help local authorities make efficiency gains. The case studies, due to be published later this month, are part of Socitm's e2Government initiative which analyses the role IT can play in helping the government meet its target for efficiency.
"The Gershon Report recognises that there has been significant investment right across the public sector in the implementation of new ways of delivering information and services, including the £675m Local Government Online (LGOL) programme in England," said Socitm.
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