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Information technology has empowered council service providers and broken down traditional management structures, s...
Information technology has empowered council service providers and broken down traditional management structures, says Jon Hanlon

Hierarchies within public sector organisations are slowly being eroded as IT breaks down barriers and creates new ways of working.

The government's recent publication of a set of agreed outcomes in e-government shows that putting information online is no longer enough.

As technology spreads further into the realm of service delivery, it is changing the structure of many organisations.

In management speak, this can be seen as a fundamental change to traditional ways of looking at hierarchical structures in the public sector. Historically, management experts have concentrated on inverting the traditional triangular structure of management, seeing this as the way to break down rigid hierarchies. However, IT means they are now looking at new types of horizontal or circular hierarchical structures.

In other words, technology is creating better access to information, which in turn is slowly breaking down traditional barriers.

Improvement & Development Agency e-government consultant Matthew Wolstenholme says: 'It raises interesting questions around the whole link between the people, or culture, of an organisation and its structure and processes. Broadening access to information can lead to change. In fact, this is one of the deliberate objectives of e-government. It aims to break down both horizontal and vertical boundaries.

'More public sector organisations are sharing information using intranets and this is an example of a movement from a culture where knowledge is power to one where the network is power.'

Infinity Training is working with the government on a number of initiatives aimed at breaking down traditional barriers to practice in the public sector.

Managing director John Manning says: 'It is certainly true in social services that the power of the computer has given individual practitioners easier access to resources in their department. They can order what they need on a central system, which gives them access to information on things such as cost and availability, and this can often cut out the role of the line manager.'

Effective information can cut out a whole layer of bureaucracy, but this approach needs to be treated with caution, according to Mr Wolstenholme, who says: 'At one time, business process re-engineering revolved around ripping out middle management. To some extent that has worked, but people have started to realise that this has meant losing a lot of expertise and the managers who actually made things work.'

Nevertheless, there is a commitment among those driving the e-government agenda to dramatically change the way public-sector organisations operate. An ODPM spokesperson says: 'E-government is about transforming the way councils work.

'This includes re-positioning services around the needs of users rather than around departmental structures, together with associated improvements in the back-office administration of front-line service interactions.

'However, management issues associated with such change are not restricted to the redesign of business processes, but also involve a transformation of human dimensions in terms of organisational culture. This could mean fewer management layers, multi-functional team working, increased responsibility and more accountability at the lowest levels.'

Changes to organisational hierarchies seem to be taking place as a natural consequence at organisations where there is a concerted effort to use technology to focus services on the needs of users.

Newham LBC head of ICT Richard Steel even questions the ODPM's reference to back-office and front-line functions, saying: 'The terms front and back office themselves are not very helpful because they create a division in the way services are delivered.'

The notion of considering what residents would actually like from their council may seem somewhat less revolutionary than e-government in general, but there is a growing realisation that the two go hand in hand.

West Lothian Council chief executive Alex Linkston says: 'IT makes a lot of things possible, but I don't think it puts my job under threat. At a council that is outward facing, you can start to group services together to break down barriers both within the organisation, between councils and across the public sector generally.'

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