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E-government whitewash continues

It's all so spiffing, says Soctim

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Comment Local government techies are prancing about like dogs with new toys. Once neglected backyard pets, they have for the last five years been lavished with £675m funding from the ODPM and inflated with responsibility for popular projects like Freedom of Information and websites that do something useful for citizens.

The list of ways in which central government is pampering local government IT departments is endless. People are even pretending to take notice of what they have to say. Now they are playing a pivotal role in Tony Blair's modernisation programme as well, which gives them elements of responsibility not only in the Gershon-inspired shared (consolidated) services efficiency drive, but also Ian Watmore's transformational government agenda.

Ooh, makes you heady just reading about it, which may explain why local government IT directors all go around calling themselves CIOs (chief information officers) nowadays.

It may also shed light on the latest fawning word from The Society of IT Managers (Socitm) on the radical government agenda for which its members have been deputised.

Socitm is unashamed of its excitement over the idea that computer systems will help transform local government into organisations that correspond with Blair's vision of local public services.

Ian Watmore, the new darling of local government and newly promoted head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, will be joining Socitm to endorse its party view of local government next Monday.

The event will feature case studies from Socitm's transformation reports, which were submitted by local authorities themselves. The society says the idea was to create a picture of what local government was doing in the name of transformation.

But through whose eye? The most prominent case study in the accompanying management report, a mobile benefits service for Halton Borough Council, uses a hackneyed press release that has been doing the rounds for a number of years.

Halton's press office has done well with this one. It won awards in 2003. Then in 2004, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) included Halton's press release in a report about the exciting things local authorities were doing with its funding.

"Not surprisingly, everyone is happy: customers, voluntary sector partners, registered social landlords...and staff," the 2004 ODPM release said.

"Not surprisingly, everyone is happy...," says Socitm's case study, published last week.

Compare Socitm's rose-tinted view of e-government to the perspective granted by the cold eye of the Audit Commission. An audit of e-government spending at Birmingham City Council (IT boss Glyn Evans is a Socitm chair), published in January 2005, gave it one star out of three, gave some praise where it was due, and levelled some constructive criticism where it was warranted.

But as far as Socitm is concerned, Birmingham cannot put a foot wrong: "The council has taken best practice in change management and combined it with best practice in project management."

Socitm is quite clearly enamoured with the transformation agenda. Its reports are full of the usual high-faluting management speak of the adapt or die ilk. "To what extent is your council locked into a cautious, controlling public sector mindset? Is all the bureaucracy really necessary?" it chants, while rustling the Blairite hymn sheet.

Why indeed? Socitm makes no attempt to answer the question, it is clearly implied: local government is full of bureaucrats because it is not dynamic, efficient and exciting. From this perspective, civil servants only have to smell the coffee, get with the programme, for everything to change for the better.

Yet the real problem with local government is a dependency on central government for the majority of funding and, therefore, a requirement to justify its existence to paymasters with some ticked box or bureaucratic process. Rather, as the New Local Government Network likes to point out, this discourages efficiency, dynamism and excitement. ®

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