Public sector CIOs spell out tech's future in government...
It can seem the only time politicians mention IT is as the target of the latest swingeing cuts needed to steady an ailing economy.
A difficult time, then, to be a public sector CIO in charge of a department expected to sacrifice its budget to save more visible front-line services.
But rather than battening down the hatches and running for lucrative private sector bolt-holes, public sector CIOs are surprisingly confident that the drive to reduce the cost of government will put IT-led reform centre stage.
Glyn Evans is corporate director of business change at Birmingham City Council, where he heads the largest business transformation programme ever undertaken by a local authority in the UK - changing everything, from the way the council procures goods and services to how it administers the collection of council tax.
"If you are redesigning your service and IT is not playing a more significant role than it has done so far in the delivery of that service, then your design is probably wrong," he said.
"I think we are at a tipping point now, where we are close to CEOs and politicians beginning to understand the role that IT can play in service delivery, because there are lots of good examples out there," he said.
"That's quite a positive message for a CIO to be saying to his or her staff, 'We've got challenges now but in the future we are going to be playing a much more central role in the organisation'."
How technology will transform public services
Perhaps the most visible way technology can help reform government is by enabling services to be delivered online.
By offering services via the web or mobile apps, government bodies hope to tailor those services more precisely to people's needs and reduce the cost of delivery.
Leeds City Council chief officer for ICT Dylan Roberts said many local authorities, his included, are considering shutting...
...some face-to-face services and pushing them online, so "the e-channel becomes the channel of choice".
Form-filling and other "low complexity" tasks are well suited to being carried out online, he said, giving the example of a Leeds care needs assessment form, which at present is often completed with the help of a social worker.
"If we can get people to do that online, even if we can only get 50 per cent, then we will save their time," Roberts said.
When moving services online the challenge for local authorities is not isolating their most vulnerable customers, he said.
"It is a dichotomy because most of our customers are people who are in need, and in many cases the people in biggest need do not want to go online but would rather speak to someone," he said.
"We have to be wary of that but also aware that we haven't got the money to do all these things."
Public sector CIOs are also conscious that authorities need to change how they engage with citizens online and move from websites designed for computers to offering more apps for smartphone and tablet devices.
"Most of what we do is based on the idea of someone sitting at a PC at home," Birmingham's Evans said.
"If you accept the prediction that by 2014 most online access will be from mobile devices, then clearly we need to respond to that."
More important than using technology to change how people access services is...
...the way authorities can use CRM technology to track an individual's needs and to personalise services, Evans said.
At Birmingham, for instance, each customer service rep can draw on a record of an individual's dealings with the council to speed up response times and often avoid the need to pass the query on.
Using Birmingham's website, individuals can access the same information about their dealings with the council that is available to the customer service reps, providing the information and services they need in one place online.
"You get a consistently high-quality response to customer service irrespective of the channel you use and irrespective of the service you're after," Evans said, pointing out its advantages over the traditional method of contacting each council department separately.
Rather than reforming public services in the dark, business analytics systems can help government bodies to figure out what they are doing right and where they need to change, Evans said.
In Birmingham, the council uses SAP CRM and BusinessObjects software to examine how its services are being delivered.
"It is about looking into why people are contacting us - for example, why a particular service has failed - then trying to redesign the service areas to improve that delivery," he said.
"Take bin collection as an example. We can look at whether it's a particular team that's a problem or something to do with people forgetting to put out their bins on a certain day."
While these tweaks might seem like a luxury, there is a financial incentive to get services right, Evans said, as "there is a big cost whenever a service does not deliver".
IT departments will also have to get smarter about measuring what particular technology-enabled projects actually achieve, according to Jos Creese, head of IT at Hampshire County Council and chairman of the Local CIO Council.
"In the past, we [the public sector] have sometimes invested savings on a wing and a prayer," he said.
And in the age of user-generated content, there's no need for...
...government to do all the hard work of reform by themselves. Socitm's Planting the Flag strategy document encourages all public service organisations to publish data online to allow third parties and community groups to build their own apps and services around it.
Squeezing savings from staff
It's not just the public that authorities should expect to do more for themselves. Evans said IT has the potential to take a lot of the administrative legwork out of running government.
"We mandate that our employees move towards a self-service model. For example, transactions can only be carried out online in many areas, so you can only raise an order or book leave online," he said.
Staff can also reduce equipment costs, according to Hampshire's Creese, who said he wants to make it easier for staff at Hampshire to work using their own computers and smartphones.
"Working from home and using your own equipment means we don't have to provide or support so much equipment - those are the sort of things that keep costs down," he said, while adding that there are security and control issues that have to be addressed when letting consumer tech into the workplace.
Where to find cash
It takes time and money to perfect technology-led business transformation.
In Birmingham, Evans said, the council undertook more than 18 months of work, including introducing an internal shared services centre, before it was able to begin bringing in changes such as mandatory online booking for holidays.
Given financial pressures, public sector CIOs need to choose carefully which projects they put in front of the executive committee, Creese said.
"The pressure we [the public sector] are under is to, on average, cut by between 20 and 30 per cent over the next two to three years," he said. "This is not a time to go to the board and ask for money."
But while there is little new money for projects, Creese said, funds can be unlocked by drawing up a compelling business case for reinvesting earlier savings.
And Leeds' Roberts said local government executives are funding projects where they can see a longer term return.
"The more forward-thinking authorities are saying, 'What we need to be doing is investing in IT because for every £1 investment it can give £3 back'," he said.