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Review ofTeleworking and Local Government, from the Local Government Management Board (LGMB)

The revolution in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is of immense significance to local government. This is because local authorities are

  1. major employers - often the largest single employer in their area
  2. policy-makers in areas where the new ICT is (or can be) transforming people's lives.
Local government as employer

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 practices:

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 them.

Teleworking and Local Government, by Ursula Huws, looks 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
  • Productivity
  • 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 and there.

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 makers

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
  • Housing
  • Community development
  • Education
  • 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 we don't.

Economic Development

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 Analytica, 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, UK.
Tel: +44 (0)171 296 6600
Fax: +44 (0)171 296 6666

Price

 

Local Government

15

Charities

19.50

Others

30

* The LGMB (Local Government Management Board) has been reorganised and many of its former functions have migrated to the Employers Organisation for Local Government, from whom LGMB publications can be obtained. 

 

 

}  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? ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

} What is striking about many local authorities which promote ICT for economic development is that their own practice often lags far behind their advocacy ~
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