Mutuals: IT group’s white paper response warns of risk of ‘fragmented and disconnected IT systems’

By David Bicknell

In its response to the Open Public Services White Paper, Socitm,  the association for all IT professionals working in local authorities and the public and third sectors, has said it welcomes the prescription for strong local government set out in the White Paper.

“Greater freedoms from central control, devolution of functions, funding following the individual, power and control to neighbourhoods, enhanced local democracy, community budgets and commissioning combine to create a vision of the future” consistent with its own strategy for IT-enabled local public service reform launched by earlier this year.”

But, it argues, “this liberating, optimistic future is at variance with much of the current commentary about the future of local public services which is based on analysis of the likely impact of actual policies that have been put in place.”

For example, it says, the recent NLGN report, Future Councils, envisages four types of council emerging by 2020:

Clustered – federations of local authorities sharing many services;

Residual – councils that have followed strategic commissioning to its logical conclusion, divesting themselves of all direct service provision;

Commercial – entrepreneurial councils, selling services to other local authorities and the private sector;

Lifestyle – local authorities which establish a particular brand for their area and focus their energies on promoting that brand.

Socitm’s view is that all these models would have a detrimental impact on the ability of local politicians to shape local services in response to local needs in the ways envisaged in the Open Public Services White Paper. None, it argues, would enthuse local government employees with a sense of purpose nor, consequently, commitment to the proposals presented.

It insists that it is not arguing for maintaining the status quo. On the contrary, it says, change is essential if the relationship between the public and public service is to be rebuilt. Reform would be founded upon greater collaboration, redesign and innovation in which local public services organisations continually renew themselves. Local authorities would play a key role by becoming ‘reforming’ councils.

However, Socitm doesn’t appear to be too keen on mutuals and new service providers playing a role. Its response says, “Reforming councils recognise that much of their ability to transform is enabled by developments in information handling and technology deployment. Merely implementing technology is not in itself the change needed. Fundamental changes to processes, organisational structures, job roles and cultures are also required across localities and public service organisations. This will be essential if citizens and neighbourhoods are to be empowered, rather than confronted by a plethora of fragmented and disconnected information systems run by mutuals and other new and existing service providers.”

In the past, Socitm has criticised central government ICT strategies for being too focused on central government and for failing to include local government effectively enough in its thinking.

Socitm says, “Socitm supports the principle of anytime, anywhere, any place availability of public services referenced in section 7.9 of the White Paper.

“The new Government Digital Service (GDS) is presented as the agency that will drive this development. However, the scope of the GDS, as set out in the White Paper, spans central government only; this is at odds with our understanding that the intention of GDS is to cover all public services.

“Four billion of the five billion citizen-government transactions that take place annually are estimated to involve local public services. Consequently, devolution of central government services and their digital delivery will require close integration with local public services if they are to make any sense to the citizen and other service users in localities.

“This issue not mentioned in the White Paper and Socitm is aware of a number of current initiatives supporting distributed service access and digital by default where the centralist, top-down, large scale, standardised, single supplier approach to implementation continues to dominate.

“The hugely important ID authentication and Universal Credit projects fall into this category – local public services have not yet been consulted on these projects despite the extensive experience and know-how they have in establishing service users‟ identities and of taking benefits to the most vulnerable and excluded in our society.”

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