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Learning to use IT properly has so many benefits - for individuals and for organisations, but any test needs real s...
Learning to use IT properly has so many benefits - for individuals and for organisations, but any test needs real support, says Martin Greenwood

Technology is now at the heart of just about every aspect of a council's work, so training has never been more important.

Research by Socitm Insight shows that typically, ICT users in local government now spend over half of the working week using ICT and see it as critical to the job.

However, the same research also shows many staff find the training they receive to be inadequate - over half say that in the course of the previous year they received no training at all.

The ODPM report Implementing local e-government says in almost three-quarters of councils, officers and councillors do not understand e-government - 69% have identified skills gaps among officers and 51% have identified gaps among councillors.

The European computer driving licence is one way councils are giving staff the skills and confidence to use ICT. The licence tests skills in seven modules, from basic concepts of ICT through to managing files, word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentation, and information and communication. Candidates gain a recognised, portable qualification showing they have attained a minimum level of competence, while employers can use the qualification as a means of making sure there are consistent levels of computer skills throughout the organisation.

So to what extent are councils signing up to the licence and what impact is this having on their wider strategies for delivering e-government? Socitm Insight, together with the Improvement & Development Agency and the British Computer Society, have been investigating this for a report, Passing the test: a snapshot of European computer driving licence experiences.

The report's findings are based on 24 council case studies, covering a good range of council types and length of experience with the licence. In addition, we looked at references to the use of the licence in the second rou nd of implementing e-government statements, submitted to the ODPM in November 2002.

The picture emerging from our research is that councils are using the licence because it seems like a good idea rather than as part of a co-ordinated strategy - few of our case studies mention a strategic lead or support. Nine of our 24 case studies started within the library service, and it is likely that a proportion of these at least were driven by the availability of New Opportunities Fund cash, which featured in seven of these nine cases.

While it obviously makes sense to use whatever funding is available, it is worrying that demand for the licence appears, in many cases, to be driven by the availability of funding, rather than any strategic plan. Based on our sample, which clearly represents an 'early adopters' group, councils are not seeing the licence as a strategic issue to be driven corporately and from the top.

As far as council staff are concerned, at least those covered by our case studies, the single most powerful motivator for signing up for the licence was the commitment of senior managers to the programme, and their leading by example in taking the test themselves.

In shire districts around 40 staff passed at least one licence module. All the other council types averaged around 200 staff. If the study were a typical sample, it would mean up to 50,000 local government staff across the UK have passed at least one module. As our sample is likely to represent the leading councils, we can perhaps suggest somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 staff is more realistic.

The licence was mentioned in the IEG2 statements of 108 councils, or 28% of the total. Similarly, only seven out of 17 councils in our case studies that completed IEG2 statements mentioned the licence. This is another clear indication many councils do not see the licence as an integral part of their local e-government plans. At the same time it is obvious from both the achievements of our case studies and the intentions in the IEG2 statem ents that the benefits of the licence are gaining recognition.

Significantly, we have been unable to find any council that has run a pilot and then chosen to abandon the licence.

We conclude from our research that the licence can and is helping councils with three distinct levels of organisational development. First, by benchmarking ICT literacy, the licence offers a simple way of making sure staff are properly equipped to deliver e-government. Second, the licence can contribute to improved understanding of the potential for exploiting technology among those who operate the back-office systems. Thus equipped, those with an intimate knowledge of key business processes can become the most effective agents for change, and the most useful contributors to their redesign. Third, it offers a simple way for mature learners to discover a sense of achievement and personal fulfilment from self-directed learning and in doing so provides an initial step towards the much sought after goal of becoming a learning organisation.

A more immediate benefit is a cut in calls to the IT help desk, freeing up resources, and increasing productivity.

Evidence from organisations such as the Bank of England and the NHS indicate that productivity improvements of at least 30 minutes per person-day are the likely outcome of the programme. Can councils afford to ignore this opportunity?

Martin Greenwood

Programme manager, Socitm Insight

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