The revolution in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)
is of immense significance to local government. This is because local
- major employers - often the largest single employer in their
- policy-makers in areas where the new ICT is (or can be)
transforming people's lives.
|Local government as
All employers wish to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and
improve the quality of services to their customers. Local Authorities
are - or should be - no exception.
Local Authorities, however, are for the most part not in the
vanguard of changing work processes and practices to take advantage of
the benefits of the new ICT.
There is a great variety of practice not only between local
authorities, but often also within individual organisations. UK local
authorities (as in many other countries) carry out a very varied range
of functions, and are required to have an extremely wide range of
"core competencies", to a degree that would not be tolerated
in a private sector organisation. Different departments
frequently exhibit high degrees of autonomy, which can carry through
to work processes, IT strategy and provision, property provision,
outsourcing policies etc.
Let's take just one example of two departments in the one local
authority exhibiting very different approaches to technology and work
In one department a new manager was appointed who began
modernising work practices by insisting on extensive use of email,
to the extent of refusing to receive paper memos. After a couple of
years email communication was routine, with electronic based
collaborative working on documents. One secretary/receptionist
supported the work of the whole department.
Meanwhile, in another department, email has not yet been
introduced (although it is available on one computer where an
employee has set up dial-up access and a hotmail account...). This
is put down to consideration for the experienced and valued employee
"Fred", who "will never learn to use a
computer". This department boasts one of the last two remaining
typing pools in the organisation. Officers send all correspondence,
including internal memos, to the typing pool, and field workers hand
in hand-written or dictaphone case notes for transcription and
filing - all filing is on paper.
These two departments (which are not fictional, though
"Fred" is not the real name involved!) have two very
different functions. But the differing functions do not explain the
differing work processes and practices.
Both departments have a high level of interface with the public.
Both have a mixture of policy work and service-delivery to the public.
Both carry out significant amounts of data processing, are obliged to
keep extensive records, and carry out a large amount of partnership
working with other agencies. Both have field staff who spend a fair
amount of time on the road.
Reasons for the differing work practices are primarily historic -
sometimes "technological historic" - and personal. They are
rooted in the prevailing departmental perspectives about what is
possible using new ICT. Awareness and lack of awareness have been more
critical to decisions than considerations of what the work involves.
|A guide for local authority managers
A new report published by the LGMB* in their Future of Work
series aims to help local authority managers increase their
understanding of the new technologies and the issues involved in using
Teleworking and Local Government, by Ursula
at the growing phenomenon of "teleworking" in its widest
sense - i.e. working at a distance using computers and telephony.
The report covers issues Local Authorities need to think about when
considering the use of teleworking, such as
- Costs and possible savings
- IT infrastructure
- Management and training issues
- Employee welfare and other personnel issues
- Travel reduction and environmental impacts
- Economic development issues
- Community benefits.
The report takes a scholarly approach to these issues, and is a
well-referenced survey of research in the 1980s and 1990s. Reading
the report would be an important first step for managers seeking to
get abreast of the issues.
After reading the report the manager will still be faced with the
issue of how to translate the principles into practice. And the
cautious tone of some of the sections of the report will raise
doubts in some managers' minds as to whether some paths should be
explored at all (for example promoting economic development through
"telecottages"). But this is an indication that the author
takes a balanced approach, and is not one of the teleworking romantics
who sees it as the answer to all society's problems.
|Costs and value
The report is most at home when considering the social impacts of
teleworking, and the "softer" workplace issues such as
training and supervision, home/work balance etc. The major issues and
opportunities are well outlined here.
There is also guidance, with examples, of costs: on technology,
property, safety and insurance issues. As well as one-off set-up
costs, employers are advised to be well aware of ongoing costs.
This whole area of costs is one that needs careful consideration, basically
for two reasons:
- the supply of products and services - for technology,
furnishings, property redesign etc, is becoming increasingly competitive
as vendors become increasingly aware of a new market
- achieving the savings and/or improvements in service to justify
set up and maintenance costs depends crucially on the degree to
which new ways of working and new business processes are
implemented. A strategic approach is essential, not a laptop here
For local authorities, faced with continuing financial
constraints, teleworking should be the means by which resources are
diverted from administration to front-line service delivery. If
this doesn't happen, why bother?
|Local authorities as policy
There are numerous areas where the new ICT have (at least
potentially) a big impact on areas of local government
responsibility. These include:
- Transport policy and traffic management (and the environmental
impact of traffic)
- Land use planning and development control
- Economic Development
- Community development
- Libraries, Museums, Arts and cultural development
- Promoting social inclusion/equal access to opportunity.
These take the issue of "teleworking" beyond how
employees of the local authority work, to the working practices of
other employers and individuals in the area, and on to the wider
issues of electronic communication and service delivery.
|Traffic reduction through ICT?
The LGMB report has a section on traffic and its impacts, but not
approached from the direction of policy development or integrating
transport and land-use planning. It concludes that further research is
needed, until when "local authorities will have little
alternative but to proceed on the basis of informed guesswork".
However, all transport planning decisions are based on projections
and modeling - themselves varieties of informed guesswork. It is not
reasonable to demand higher degrees of empirical certainty for
promoting teleworking than for, say, public transport use. For a
critique of this kind of approach, see the Flexibility article Travel Reduction and Teleworking: what we know and what
Understanding and promoting ICT is crucial for Economic
Development. Many local authorities and other public bodies (such as
TECs, LECs and Regional Development Agencies) are already promoting
skills development in the local workforce, and marketing their areas
to promote high-tech inward investment.
It is perhaps not helpful to economic development officers to
focus, as the LGMB report does, primarily on the value of
telecottages. While they are important they are in many respects an
economic development sideshow compared to current efforts to develop
Information Age working practices in SMEs.
What is striking about many local authorities which are making
efforts to promote ICT for economic development is that their own
practice often lags far behind their advocacy. It is not unknown for
public bodies funding ICT development in local business to have a
policy of denying their own employees access to the Internet. There's
a credibility issue here!
|Getting on with it!
There is much that Local Authorities and other public bodies can
and should do to get to grips with Information Age working and its
societal impacts. Phrases such as "joined up government",
"online government", "modernising local
government" and "government direct", not to mention
"benchmarking best practice" and "best value" are
pouring out of Whitehall and being echoed in Town and County Halls.
Progressive use of ICT should underpin such developments. There's
enough research and established practice now for organisations to move
beyond the fine phrases and start delivering the benefits.
Teleworking and Local Government, by Ursula Huws of
is published by the Local Government Management Board.
The report is available from the Employers' Organisation for Local
Government*, Layden House, 76-86 Turnmill Street, London, EC1M 5LG,
Tel: +44 (0)171 296 6600
Fax: +44 (0)171 296 6666