According to local government minister Hilary Armstrong, smaller councils should be sharing their IT services. Such collaboration is the only way they will achieve the changes in service delivery the government demands.
The 1999 edition of the Society of IT Managment's trends survey came to a similar conclusion, questioning both the need for councils to develop their own software, and the practice of always acting independently.
A recent survey in London shows between 70% and 90% of the e-government requirements are common to all 33 London boroughs, and joint procurement is accordingly a high priority for London Connects - the organisation formed to develop an e-strategy for the capital.
In principle, there is no reason why collaboration over IT should not be possible. In some areas the majority of councils are already sharing a solution from a single private sector supplier.
But in practice there can be very real obstacles. Smaller councils do not, by themselves, have the resources to make the investments needed to reap any efficiency gains. Better Connected 2001?, Socitm's annual survey of council websites, reveals an emerging digital divide between shire districts and larger councils.
The need to find common ground may be further complicated these days by the advent of cabinet government, mayors and assemblies, and the associated trend towards a more hands-on involvement by politicians. While a shared outsourcing arrangement might seem sensible for two adjacent councils, different political motives could make it very difficult to agree a common specification, even for something as apparently neutral as IT services.
Other innovative forms of collaboration are starting to emerge as part of the e-government drive. Socitm has recently launched a shareware club as a vehicle for making applications developed in one council available to others. Socitm will verify the software and then set up a mechanism, likely to involve a private sector supplier, to ensure it is promoted, supported and continually developed for the benefit of club members. More than 25 councils are involved in the first project - a customer relationship management system originally developed by a London borough.
Shire districts need better resourcing for IT, but funding arrangements leave many unable to do this. In times of increasing financial challenges, these pressures can only grow and make it more difficult to achieve the progress we all want to see.
-Robin Carsberg, president, Society of IT Management, head of technology services, Braintree DC.