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While other councils struggle to deal with the concept of e-government, Hillingdon LBC has discovered how painless ...
While other councils struggle to deal with the concept of e-government, Hillingdon LBC has discovered how painless it can be - as long as the numbers are right, says Dr Paul Jackson

In his day job in the world of property investment, Jonathan Bianco (Con) is used to making hard-nosed financial decisions. So as cabinet member for finance and corporate services at Hillingdon LBC, it takes a convincing argument for him to spend money.

It is perhaps no coincidence that officers working on

e-government have become adept at building persuasive business cases for their initiatives. And with technology now central to the council's modernisation plans, investments in e-government certainly need to add up.

In their approach to e-government, Hillingdon's e-champions are looking to prove the value of projects across three sets of criteria. First are the so-called 'red' benefits, which deliver tangible cost savings, such as lower office overheads and reduced procurement expenditure. Not surprisingly, it is these, according to head of IT Steve Palmer, that form the thrust of any business case.

But just as importantly there are the 'orange' benefits - productivity improvements that can produce financial savings or help free up resources.

Benefits in the orange category are often found in developments linked to the web. Diagnostic work by the council found some 65% of service transactions were relatively generic in nature and lent themselves to standardisation and citizen self-service. Innovations here allow for staff time to be redirected, particularly on tasks that demand personal interactions.

The third set of benefits characterised as 'green' covers such items as social inclusion, staff motivation and community leadership. While still valuable in themselves, such benefits do not easily translate into financial or productivity measures.

And with 38 potential benefits identified in their diagnostic work, Mr Palmer and his team have collected a range of ammunition in the battle for reso urces. But as Mr Palmer's colleague Pacey Cheales explains, this has to be understood as part of a broader process, which starts with the strategic planning context.

Each council has its own drivers for modernisation, which reflect both local and strategic priorities. Community plans, best value performance plans and service specific plans may all figure highly. So too does Hillingdon's response to its comprehensive performance assessment.

As Mr Bianco explains: 'After the assessment, the council's improvement plan has used the modernisation strategy and e-government initiatives as a blueprint for better use of the council's scarce resources, improving services to the community and enhancing decision making.'

Hillingdon's diagnostic work here has led to a profound rethink on the likely shape of the council in the future. 'We have a clear vision of how things could be different,' says Mr Palmer, in which 'e-government could be used to create a different organisation'.

Only once the planning context has been addressed, says Mr Cheales, can the business case for a project be built. In the methodology developed at Hillingdon, there are five distinct steps to this.

Step one involves the identification of benefits - from red to green. In doing this, the Hillingdon experience suggests there is merit in outlining the main groups of beneficiaries. By constructing a stakeholder-benefit matrix, staff are then able to demonstrate the types of gains particular target groups are likely to receive.

In step two, a 'modernisation diagnostic' is applied. By working with service managers, a systematic analysis is made of opportunities to modernise the way the council works.

As each diagnostic tool is used, a careful assessment is made of the risks and issues involved. This is followed by step three - a reality check. This pulls together the analysis on risks and returns, and seeks to clarify whether real benefits have been identified that suggest the initiative should be taken forward.

By step four of the process, a financial-return-on-investment model is employed. Developed with advisers from Cisco Systems, the model looks at the likely returns and cash flows from the investment.

In diagnostic work completed on Hillingdon's Housing Services, the analysis suggests a compelling case for modernisation. With a total investment of between £1.8m and £2.2m over four years, payback is predicted in only 29-39 months, producing between £435,000 and £734,000 of savings year on year thereafter.

For Mr Bianco, this gets to the heart of the matter. 'Business cases must be carefully budgeted and relate to the council's overall objectives,' he says.

Once the case for a portfolio of projects can be made, it is then time to decide which ones should go first. Step five of Hillingdon's methodology involves 'prioritising the business case'. Here, staff have developed a range of weighted criteria which allow for project proposals to be compared in an explicit and objective manner.

For this London borough then, decision-making on e-government is free of the scepticism or leaps of faith that still bedevil many councils. And there is not just a clear sense of where Hillingdon is going among staff. Because of its skills in business case building, it knows how to get there.

Dr Paul Jackson

Manager, e-government forum, CIPFA

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