Creaking under the strain of modernisation

15 Jun 00
The waves of modernisation sweeping through local government are producing far-reaching changes in the way authorities provide services and do business with their partners in the private and voluntary sectors.

16 June 2000

But while many applaud the aims of the reform agenda, the confidence of those in the vanguard is taking a battering. A survey of public sector managers, by CIPFA and risk management consultants Zurich Municipal Management Services (ZMMS), yielded some worrying results this week.

Almost six in ten believe their authorities do not define their roles and responsibilities properly when entering partnership agreements. The poll shows that 42% believe the agreements are too vague, and another 16% say they are not convinced the contracts go into sufficient detail.

Managers have also expressed reservations about the pace of the reforms – 52% claim it puts a strain on the day-to-day management of the organisation, and almost two-thirds say finance departments are not fully involved in the changes being introduced.

CIPFA chief executive Steve Freer says he is not surprised finance staff are expressing reservations about the pace of change. 'There is such a huge amount to know and do,' he said. 'In local government the finance department has a vital role to play in helping authorities to deliver Best Value, and in ensuring that new political structures are supported by all the relevant financial advice.'

But in spite of the nervousness in some quarters, many remain optimistic about the future, with 71% saying their authorities are fully exploring the opportunities for working with the private and voluntary sector.

Sixty-two per cent believe these relationships are producing the intended results, and the overwhelming majority, an impressive 75%, are confident they will meet the challenges of their Best Value performance plans.

Nevertheless, Jeremy Kite, senior partner with ZMMS, warns that finance staff have to be brought centre-stage or else organisational weaknesses in the development and monitoring of partnerships could be allowed to take root. 'A failure to put in place processes to ensure good governance and the management of risk could jeopardise the potential benefits,' he said.

This lurking danger is apparent in the headlong rush to meet the government's ambitious e-government target to make all services available on the Internet by 2005. Only half of those responding to the survey said their authorities were actively reviewing the risks that arise from an increased number of electronic transactions, such as computer viruses or technology failure. Thirty-nine per cent said their own authority was not addressing the risks, with a further 10% saying they did not know.

Almost 29% of respondents also said their organisations would not be able to meet the e-government targets and a further 23% said they did not know if it were possible.

The finding will be a blow to the government and throws into doubt its decision to bring the deadline forward from 2008. Although the 2005 target relates specifically to central government and its associated agencies, local authorities are expected to ensure that all activities tied to central government services also meet this deadline.

ZMMS senior partner Shelley Thornton is concerned that focusing too closely on meeting the targets could damage services rather than improve them. 'Experimentation with new technologies should only take place where the potential benefits are greatest,' she said.

'If the government's targets for on-line service delivery have the effect of forcing all providers to move at the same pace, the desired outcome of improved delivery service may not be achieved. Instead, an unseemly rush may lead to waste and inefficiency.'

But CIPFA council member Chris Hurford believes that, while nerves may have been stretched by the pace of change, public sector managers are enthusiastic about e-government.

'The big challenge for authorities is to get the two agendas – the drive to improve services and the best use of technology – in step,' he said. 'It's all about seeing technology as helping deliver service improvements rather than treating them as different targets.'


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