It is a familiar issue for local government managers: meet stringent central government requirements while trying to improve internal effectiveness. Technology should integrate, analyse and report data that supports core processes. It should track service delivery, aiding decision-makers to improve overall quality control. It should be a key part of the answer. Alas, history shows us it is not always that helpful.

"This is recognised by all local government as an area to concentrate on. Ask any council and the issue of getting better benefits delivery is a priority"

Sarah Mackie, team leader of quality assurance and management, Scottish Borders Council

A specific issue is the delivery of key services by local councils, such as housing benefit. For all our talk of e-government, a non-delivered payment because of IT failure can be the difference between meeting the bills and further financial hardship. As Sarah Mackie, team leader of quality assurance and management for the Scottish Borders Council puts it: “This is recognised by all local government as an area to concentrate on. Ask any council and the issue of getting better benefits delivery is a priority.”

Analysing and reporting how well these services are being delivered at the local government level is a focus of central government. But collecting and sorting that data across a variety of sources and systems is too often another headache for the IT force.

These days the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) mandates regular workload management information returns – which are vital, as the subsidies paid to local authorities are calculated on the basis of the accuracy of these reports. There is also a penalty clause. It is a highly regulated area – fail to perform and you will get charged.

“When we received a sanction in 2003 for the quality of our service we saw it as a wake up call,” admits head of finance and IT at East Lothian, Colin Shand.

“E-government will deliver many benefits in many areas but it’s fair to say housing benefit delivery is still mainly paper-based and getting that benefit out even quicker to people is not necessarily going to be an automatic by-product of e-government.”

Come together

A possible way forward has been shown in Scotland by these two councils and others.

The approach combines the key themes of collaboration and shared resources to deliver a platform for improving service delivery, aiding management decision-making and simplifying reporting tasks.

Specifically, 10 local Scottish councils, led by East Lothian, have clubbed together to tackle common problems.

The idea is to develop and deploy a performance management and measurement framework all can share.

The result is a £1.5 million, three-year project, partly underwritten by the councils involved and partly by the DWP. They are building a system to help deliver a better housing and council tax benefits service by tracking key performance indicators measuring the responsiveness and accuracy of delivery.

All data collected is matched against indicators linked to the performance standards and best practices published by the DWP. The project started in April 2004 and the first phase ended in June 2005.

How Whitehall measures council benefit delivery

The DWP (www.gov.uk) has monitored the administration of housing and council tax benefit since January 2004 through the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate, an independent unit within the department reporting directly to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the standard of benefit administration and counter-fraud activity.It issues regular public reports on individual council performance on its website. If a council fails to meet the DWP norm of 36 days to completely process an applicant’s claim it faces sanctions and is expected to produce a plan to improve performance. Councils can, since 2002, measure themselves against a set of published standards, though government has not set a deadline for meeting them.

The onus has been on using technology to improve council services in a very visible way.

“Gaining a true picture of our performance as a council is essential to improving services to local citizens, increasing our decision-making power and delivering against the set targets,” says the Leader of East Lothian, Councillor Norman Murray.

East Lothian was the effective lead council of the group. Shand says: “Working with the DWP, we decided we needed a way to better measure our performance. A simple central solution that could concentrate reporting also seemed desirable.”

The councils soon decided they would prefer a hosted solution over implementing a big corporate performance management tool. That would have been a massive IT project and remove some of the anticipated benefits, such as manageable timelines and reasonable cost.

“We circulated a suggestion to other councils in the country to see if we could find a solution that could be of benefit to all of us. We also applied for DWP funding under its Performance Fund scheme – but to get 100 per cent funding, the result had to be something that potentially could be of use to all the 400-plus UK local government bodies. We did get that 100 per cent funding and are confident this application has a real national future,” says Shand.

The final application has been developed by a consortium of performance management consultants Aspiren, local government software and services provider Civica and IT services group Computacenter. The contract was awarded as usual under the established European tendering scheme.

It is a fully hosted web-based scorecard system, which needs no internal council IT resource to manage. It is hosted in the supplier’s data centre with full backup, disaster recovery, 24-hour monitoring and helpdesk services.

“The idea is to automate as much as possible of the process, including populating a tool that drives the benefit system for the specific council,” he says.

“But that’s just one aspect. Equally important is the way information is being driven to the other authorities in the group as a way for all of us to benchmark our delivery performance.”

"The significance of this project is it shows that collaboration is the way forward. There are real, immediate benefits in terms of sharing information and resources to get results
"

Colin Shand, head of finance and IT, East Lothian Council

“We became involved last October and were pleased that it took only until mid-December for most of the framework design to be finished,” says Scottish Borders’ Mackie.

“We find it very intuitive and easy to use. There’s a nice ‘traffic light’ theme of red, amber and green to help illustrate workflow, for example.” At her council – like others in the first phase – the user base comprises around 10 senior managers, ranging from the chief executive down to team leader level.

Meanwhile an XML-based standard integration platform is also being built to extract and transform performance data from the individual benefits systems used by the councils.
Again, the theme is collaboration and shared risk. The proposal is to transform these results into a format available to partners and other councils for easy and standard redeployment.

Moving forward

The system was designed from the start to have the functional potential to be extended to other local authorities and to address areas beyond housing benefit. The first part of that promise has been fulfilled, it seems, as the second stage of the rollout now involves three more councils in Scotland, seven in England and seven in Wales.

Another target is matching council performance with new DWP-set national performance standards, due to be introduced over the next few months. “The real aim of all this is to see the benefit service improve in all councils,” says Shand.

“The significance of this project is it shows that collaboration is the way forward,” he says. “There are real, immediate benefits in terms of sharing information and resources to get results. We have shown local councils can collaborate much more easily than some expected. On a technical note, we also feel the hosted delivery option shows how quickly this can be deployed”

If there is any caveat to this success-story, it is that currently we are not seeing more like it. But it may be that the future of local government IT will be one that is hosted and multi-shareholder shaped.