“We can’t mess around at the edges any more. We have to do things differently.”
For Steve Palmer, the president of the Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm), the looming crisis in public finances will be the spark that forces IT right into the heart of councils’ strategies across the country.
With Socitm due to meet next week for its annual conference, Hillingdon LBC’s head of ICT is arguing the case for the potential of technology to help councils provide better services at lower cost.
The society is publishing ’Council of the Future’, a route map for local authorities to fundamentally change the way they operate. The report envisages a number of outcomes.
Councils will have fewer buildings and staff. Outsourcing and partnership working will become the norm. And there will be an increased role for IT in supporting processes and reducing costs and paper use.
By moving to this way of working, Mr Palmer believes councils could reduce central office costs by 40%, central staff costs by 10% to 20%, service delivery costs by 5% to 20%, and transactional costs by 90%.
“The bottom line is that we are going to have to do this with less people,” he says. “But we can improve services and cut costs at the same time.”
Technology will have to be an “enabler” that meets the needs and demands of the “business”. “Technology must not be owned by the technologists but by the business,” he says.
“I think potentially the savings are significant. We need to plug the gap in public sector finances at least in part by technology. We have growing numbers of people out there in the community who have access to and are willing to interact with local authorities through technology.”
Where people can access services over the internet, or by using mobile phones, there is considerable scope to reduce ’avoidable contact’ with staff, he claims.
This could include:
- more information being available through websites rather than over the phone
- the payment of bills
- better signposting and links to services provided by other public bodies and beyond
- councils taking a more proactive approach - for example, texting residents if a rubbish collection is going to be late to forestall them ringing in to find out why their bins have not been emptied
He says councils need to look at which of the 740-odd services they provide can be provided in different ways, rather than simply face-to-face.
“In Hillingdon, we are going thorough every service to look at avoidable contact,” he says.
Councils need to anticipate and design out those points where residents are forced to make contact to seek information or complain, perhaps by providing the information without being prompted.
But he warns it will still be necessary to provide some services and information in a more traditional way to people who can not or will not access them through the internet or mobile phones.
Some heavy users of council services, such as adult social services, are less likely to use the internet as the primary method of getting in contact.
And getting councillors to agree to invest in technology is another difficulty - especially if it diverts money from the front line.
“When you are struggling for money it is all about finding the capacity to invest to take the hard savings out,” he says. “You have to have strategies to pump prime this - you have to create capacity.”
For Mr Palmer, producing business cases for investment is vital in persuading councillors to invest.
But he says moves towards software as a service and cloud computing could make this easier. These innovations reduce the cost of starting a new service - essentially councils ‘rent’ bandwidth and software as they need it, rather than buy it - and transform the cost of changes.
Collaborative working - either between councils or involving other public services as well - could also produce savings.
“We are right in the middle of a revolution but there is no blueprint. We are shaping the future as we do it,” he says.
The government’s Operational Efficiently Programme, published earlier this year, found that £4bn could be saved from public sector back offices and another £3.2bn from IT spending. It cited savings of between 20% and 30% from shared services in other sectors.
Many in local government might question whether those figures are easily achievable, but Mr Palmer has grave concerns the sector will have little choice in the matter: “The issue is that when the Treasury gets given figures like these they will assume everyone is doing it and take it out of the budget,” he says.
“The capacity to do it all quickly is not there. It is the scale of the challenge and the lack of ability to fund pump priming. We can’t have everything as a priority. There are a huge amount of things that we have to respond to.”
He has already called for a £1bn ‘IT stimulus fund’ to be set up by the government to help develop more environmentally efficient and higher quality public services, arguing that it is hard to find investment funds at a local level.
Furthermore, Socitm’s response to the OEP argues: “The current mode of public service and ICT delivery is unsustainable,” before adding that there are challenges in making the sort of transformation change needed the norm.
The response flags up the society’s reservations over the chances of the “digital switchover” outlined in the government’s ‘Digital Britain’ strategy – and on which many of the savings assumptions are based – being achieved by the tight deadline of 2012.
The response also says there is a lack of detailed guidance around the share of IT savings which are expected to come at the local level, and around the investment which is needed to radically transform local public services to achieve efficiency improvements.
All in all, plenty for the conference delegates to be discussing next week.