LGC Council of the Year Hertfordshire CC was one of the comprehensive performance assessment's 22 'excellent' councils. Last year it was also held up as an example of good practice in the Audit Commission's report on e-government, The message beyond the medium. Is this just a coincidence or is there a link between well-managed councils and ICT?
Performance management in local government has been a high political priority for years. The latest manifestation is the comprehensive performance assessment, but one area of performance that has never been easy to measure is the contribution ICT investment makes to improving services.
Although the CPA process has its critics, it is at least systematic and assesses councils according to the same criteria. The Society of IT Management has over recent years collected a great deal of performance data and is now able to put together some very useful management information by relating our data to the CPA results.
The society's research has discovered 'excellent' councils invest more in ICT than other councils by about 20 to 30%, depending in whether expenditure is calculated per employee or per head of population. Not surprising, given a modernising council committed to a programme of change will want to exploit ICT to improve customer service.
Of course, investing in ICT does not always mean the cash will be wisely and efficiently spent. More evidence of the impact of investment is needed. One very useful surrogate measure of value is the level of satisfaction with the service as perceived by those who use it.
It has already been shown there is a link between user sat isfaction and the results of best value reviews, and we can also show that there is a much higher level of user satisfaction in 'excellent' councils than in 'poor' councils.
'Excellent' authorities are likely to register on average user satisfaction levels around 11% higher than 'fair' or 'weak' councils and 24% higher than 'poor' councils. This, too, is no surprise because a council committed to improved customer service will encourage support services such as ICT to treat its internal customers in the same way as its front-line services treat their customers.
Investment levels and user satisfaction are both relatively traditional indicators for ICT services. But a more interesting indicator is the state of council website.
Readers of the latest annual Socitm survey of websites, Better connected 2003, will already know well-developed websites are a test of good management rather than a test of the technology. For example, there is a strong correlation between the state of a council's website and its CPA rating - 'excellent' councils were twice as likely to be named top county, top unitary, top London borough or top metropolitan district in our website survey.
The goal of our ranking system is the transactional site. It is no coincidence five out of seven transactional sites identified by our survey are managed by councils who have been through the first round of CPA and were ranked 'excellent'.
A well-developed website requires good corporate management. Managers need to realise the strategic importance of the website to council business, and show commitment to continuous improvement of the website as a product - ensuring professional disciplines such as communications, marketing, ICT and librarian skills are all brought to bear on its development. Conversely, the website should not a victim of organisational politics and silo mentality. In other words, it is an appropriate test for an excellent council.
Well-developed websites, investment in ICT, satisfied users - a picture is emerging of ICT making a real difference in a well-managed council, particularly when it comes to CPA ratings. A modern council will embrace change, invest in ICT and perhaps most importantly have the presence of mind to exploit the technology.
Programme manager, Insight best practice research service, Socitm