When Essex CC began a fundamental review of IT, leading into a first year best value review, it could easily have focused purely on 'techie' stuff. In an organisation as large and complex as ours, this would have been meaty enough.
The council employs more than 28,000 staff - most of whom are dependent on a network of more than 7,000 PCs - and we operate software-processing systems for everything from issuing books to keeping records on social services clients.
But rather than stick to the detail, we decided to focus on the much broader question of how to maximise the benefits IT could bring to the organisation, its partners and above all the people we serve.
We asked potential partners to provide their ideas for using IT to help deliver our business goals. We did not ask them to bid against a tight specification, but rather provide us with 'challenging' proposals. This made for a complex and sometimes difficult process. But, some 18 months on, the council is embarking upon its largest strategic partnership with Syntegra, part of BT.
The partnership promises a transformation in the council and will fulfil the best value requirements of improved public service and financial savings.
Through the provision of better information systems, the public will be able to contact the council using a wider choice of access points, and our work with partner organisations on community information networks will be boosted.
We have managed major contractual relationships for many years - some of them very innovative - but so far these have tended to be service-specific. We have spent a lot of time developing partnership relationships, but these have largely been focused on other public sector organisations.
The council feels confident about delivering the prime minister's e-government targets. The partnership contributes to a changing organisational culture at Essex, and our relationship with Syntegra will introduce new ways of working across the council.
The consultative element of the best value review gave many stakeholders within the council the opportunity to define the necessary specification. It could not be driven by the technology department alone, but was shared and shaped by councillors and a cross-section of other senior managers.
This inclusive approach has continued since the decision to select Syntegra as preferred supplier. We now have a Syntegra team working alongside our own staff in developing plans. More than 100 staff will be transferring to the new partner and moving to new offices. The management of this and other operational developments is being jointly handled, at the same time as change management and communications programmes are getting under way. All these initiatives are vital to the long-term success of the partnership.
When we were in the depths of the best value review, it sometimes seemed hard to believe we would emerge from it in a positive position.
But while it is still early days, the review has undoubtedly made it possible for Essex to achieve more mature working relationships with commercial partners, and significantly improve service delivery.
-Claire Dimitros, head of IT, Essex CC.