Councils are at “breaking point” as they attempt to fund cutting edge technology changes on much smaller budgets, according to the industry body representing local government IT managers.

Socitm’s warning came as government chief information officer John Suffolk said the uptake of shared services and cloud computing could need to increase dramatically to meet the challenge.

The technology budget available to local authorities would be on average 11 per cent lower this year than in 2009, Socitm forecast today – the fastest level of reduction since it began monitoring budgets 23 years ago. This would heavily affect IT staff numbers, as a result set to fall by 3,000 overall, or 10 percent.

Consequently, service levels were falling, it noted. Local IT managers were being expected to produce better results from existing systems, as well as introduce new technology, Socitm said, in order to take cost out of other operations. Some 390 IT managers were interviewed for the ‘IT Trends’ report.

The report also warned that many shared service initiatives had “stalled”, affecting what was thought as a key way for councils to remove operational cost. Problems with local “political culture” were largely at fault, it said.

Some of the technological changes being made include improvements to efficiency, more citizen self-service offerings, the introduction of systems for more flexible working, customer relationship management initiatives, better document management, and more virtualisation.

Warning that equipment refresh cycles would become longer, Socitm said councils would need to find more cash to support their “ageing” IT or find new low cost ways of delivering IT.

It reiterated its view that Whitehall’s Operational Efficiency Programme targets of 20 percent cost savings in three years were “unrealistic”, and that the only way to achieve those savings was to slash front line services, a problematic move.

Socitm forecast there would be some “radical” changes made by councils to meet this challenge. John Serle, editor of the report, said councils needed to make both “bold decisions and significant investment”, with the backing of their chief executives.

It urged councils to make a move into cloud computing, while being aware of potential service level and security risks, in order to improve efficiency. And better use of social networks would help with modern public service delivery, it said.

At a meeting in London where the results of the survey were announced, Suffolk, the government’s own CIO, predicted that radical announcements on IT would likely be made by whichever party wins this year’s election.

“If we reduce IT spending, there’s going to be a lot of focus on the supply side,” he said, suggesting IT providers might also feel the pinch. “We’ll all look more to shared services and the cloud too.”

Contrary to the opinion of Socitm, Suffolk insisted the Operational Efficiency Programme savings targets were reachable, but would require a concerted effort.

Datacentre rationalisation would be necessary for local councils, he said. Drawing on the example of “complete madness” in central government, he said, where 130 datacentres are run “instead of the nine to 12 that would be necessary”, Suffolk added that councils were likely to effect similar datacentre cuts.