Public sector austerity measures have been a catalyst for Essex County Council to digitise public services, enable mobility and introduce tough performance targets which have helped save the local government body millions in the last five years, according to its CIO David Wilde.
IT played a vital role in allowing the council to cope with a 40% budget cut - £500 million - since 2010, caused by reductions in central government grants under the Conservative-led coalition, Wilde said.
The technology team is currently using its £32 million-a-year budget to help trim a further £140 million from the authority's budget.
Getting 90% of the workforce to 'go mobile' allowed the council to reduce its property estate, for example.
"That released £50 million one-off and £60 million a year in revenue cost. It's a direct consequence of what we've done around IT," Wilde said.
The council, which provides services to a population of about 1.5 million, also managed to make big savings by renegotiating a huge outsourcing deal it had signed with IBM in 2009.
An Essex County Council press officer said that the £5.4 billion deal was significantly reduced in scope in 2012, and now only covers data centre hosting, a finance system and "basic data management".
The authority works with a range of suppliers, including Dell, Daisy Updata Consortium, CoreLogic, Microsoft and Fujitsu, via a £16.6 million five-year deal, with a possible two-year extension, to overhaul its IT infrastructure signed last year. The contract will help to consolidate its systems, saving £235 million by 2017, the council said.
Staff numbers in the IT department have fallen by just over a third from 480 to 310 as a result of a demand to cut its budget by 28 percent, Wilde explained.
However service levels improved during that time, thanks to better training, a better customer service culture and a focus on meeting a set of strict ITIL service management targets developed by qualifications body Axelos, he claimed.
The targets include log on times, whether users' issues get dealt with quickly and without needing a reminder, device weight, and how long it takes to fix major incidents.
"It took two or three minutes to log on and some of our smaller sites took 20 minutes. One of our first tasks was getting that down to under 40 seconds," he said.
Previously the team managed to fix 75% of reported problems without the affected member of staff chasing them, whereas now it is 98%, Wilde added.
"Really it was all about getting the team to focus on the customer and what you need to provide to keep the user happy," he said.
The IT department is helping to enable savings by moving more services online, according to Wilde.
For example residents can now apply and pay for blue badge permits online, leading to a reduction in paper applications from 70% to 10% in two years, he said.
"You cannot be dogmatic. You can't say 'all must go digital', it's not practical. But you can talk to the people you provide services to and work with them to maximise what digital do for them," Wilde said.
As part of the savings agenda the council is looking at moving some of its systems from its two data centres to cloud. It is currently considering whether to migrate to Microsoft Office 365, which now has government security accreditation.
However Wilde warned that poor rural broadband coverage could hamper his efforts.
"The biggest challenge stopping us moving faster to cloud is the reality of how rural we are. The issue is 70% of Essex is countryside. You don't have the 'always on' experience," he said.
One route for savings which Wilde believes will become increasingly significant is getting different agencies and departments across the public sector to work together.
The council has done a "huge" amount of work setting up an information governance framework and getting the different health, police and local authority agencies to start sharing, he said.
Not only will this save money but it will also make services more 'citizen centric', reducing the need to repeat information, for example.
However he warned a number of "big blockers" need to be sorted to encourage more collaboration: cultural change to make agencies less parochial, clarity around information sharing rules and changes to the way public sector organisations are funded.
"The blocker is not the law, but the fact organisations are not clear about what they can do, what's allowed. The other is public sector funding and how it's constructed," Wilde said.
"For example, the hospital funding model is based on the number of patients in beds, whereas Clinical Commissioning Groups' funding is based on prevention, so stopping people getting into hospitals. That's a tough conundrum," he said.