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NORTHUMBERLAND'S COMPUTER SERVICE RATED 'POOR' - PLUS COUNCIL'S RESPONSE

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The computer service provided by Northumberland CC is poor and has uncertain prospects for improvement, according t...
The computer service provided by Northumberland CC is poor and has uncertain prospects for improvement, according to an independent report released today by the Audit Commission.

Commission inspectors gave the service no stars because it is not customer-focused and the service quality is inconsistent. There is significant dissatisfaction among users.

Mick Hannon, commissioning inspector, said: 'Councillors and senior officers see e-government as essential in helping them to deliver better and more accessible services. However, Northumberland should agree what it wants to achieve, how it intends to do so and when. This should include challenging existing service delivery arrangements. It needs to produce an ambitious citizen-focused improvement which links with the requirements of the government's e-strategy.'

The inspection report highlights some strengths:

- The service provides systems to support the core functions of the council. Schedules and deadlines are generally met and users are kept informed if the system is going to be unavailable for any length of time.

- Computer services staff are helpful and approachable, and users are not made to feel intimidated by the use of jargon.

However, inspectors found the following weaknesses:

- The aims of the service are not challenging, and there is no system in place to measure how well it is performing.

- There is no central control of the service: the role of liaison officers is unclear; there is no planned equipment replacement programme; and no planned training or personal development for staff.

- Costs of the service are high.

To help the council improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:

- Put in place service level agreements and use them to measure performance and increase customer satisfaction. Make sure customers have a clear understanding of the role of computer services generally, and of the IT liaison officers.

- Aim to match the standards of the top performing authorities by setting measurable targets; providing training and development for staff; and making sure systems are in place to identify and address problems, and properly manage major projects.

- Make sure the service provides value for money by looking at possible partnership working with other agencies and the private sector; comparing costs with other providers; identifying cost savings, by for example, avoiding duplication of processes; and further developing links with agencies such as the Northumberland Partnership and district councils.

The council's computer service supports 2,190 workstations in over 81 locations, including 40 social services' offices, 35 libraries, four depots, County Hall and a training centre at Hepscott Park. It also supports 479 computer workstations in 213 schools, four district councils covering 25 sites and a total of over 7,000 email users (excluding school pupils). The budget for computer services is£7.6m (2001/2002), offset by£1.7m income from the provision of services to external organisations.

A press release from the local authority follows.

Northumberland CC has responded in a positive and constructive way to the criticisms of its computer services by a new Audit Commission report.

The government's Audit Commission inspectors today gave the council's ICT service 'no stars', describing it as lacking customer focus and pointing to inconsistent service quality.

However the commission also recognised that the county council's ICT schedules and deadlines are generally met and that computer services staff are helpful and approachable.

The county council does not shy away from valid criticism but believes the commission's inspection judgements in a number of areas were fundamentally flawed and these were formally challenged.

Ivan Hayes, executive member for organisational capacity said: 'Whilst the county council did not accept all of the findings of the inspectors, we are committed to improving our ICT service and will use the information provided by the Audit Commission, together with our own work, to ensure we exploit fully the potential of ICT. This will make our front line services such as libraries, highways and learning centres more efficient and more accessible to the citizens of Northumberland.'

Mr Hayes also pointed out that:

-£566,000 was put forward in this year's budget to improve the council's ICT services. A further£1.466m is being set aside for the same purpose in 2003/2004. And capital investment of£2.5m has been identified to improve computer hardware over this two year period.

- The council has formed a team of computer experts - an e-team - to help make better use of new technology in providing council services.

- The council is also in the process of appointing a strategic advisor for ICT, from a national body, to ensure that ICT is fit for purpose and delivers e-government.

'In addition to driving forward change and improvement across the board our chief executive Alan Clarke has created a change management team,' added Mr Hayes. 'That team will have a pivotal role in coaching, facilitating and driving a change and improvement agenda throughout the county council.'

Note

The council's computer service supports 2,190 workstations in over 81 locations, including 40 social services' offices, 35 libraries, four depots, County Hall and a training centre at Hepscott Park. It also supports 479 computer workstations in 213 schools, four district councils covering 25 sites and a total of over 7,000 email users (excluding school pupils).

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