Factors Influencing Information and Communication Technology
There is a growing expectation from state and territory governments, communities and businesses that councils should deliver their services more efficiently and effectively. The most salient evidence of this is the processes of inquiry and reform that occur perennially across all Australian jurisdictions. Within these processes of reform, often the issue of structural reform takes centre-stage. Increasingly amalgamation is coupled with alternative or at least complimentary reforms, namely resource-sharing arrangements and reforms to organisational processes. Here, the issue of information and communications technology (ICT) looms large.
Yet often the importance of ICT is overshadowed. In fact appropriate ICT forms a core component of any council’s strategic capacity. Moreover, many of the factors that influence the adoption of ICT platforms and shared service arrangements are particular to local governments and as such cannot be drawn from either other public organisations or the private sector.
First, council’s ICT strategies are influenced by several key actors within the organisation. Councillors and senior management have a relationship to one another that is particular to local government. Individual service delivery managers and other staff can also play a key role in the selection of ICT products. Generally, other organisational policies that seek to serve ratepayer’s interests and provide quick wins take precedence over strategic issues. The result can be that little strategic consideration is given to ICT, which in many instances can pave the way to realising broader organisational goals. Additionally, a handful of hardware and software vendors who hold relative monopolies in the market play an important role in informing the range of options for ICT policy.
Second, while it is often recognised that leadership is required to make the fundamental changes the way councils’ operate, it is not often recognised that this maxim applies just as much to ICT as it does to other elements of a council’s operations. Yes, councillors and management can play significant role in demonstrating their support and willingness to embrace ICT initiatives, thus deciding organisation structure and the way internal business processes work. However, leadership at every level is a must to implement technological change. Research clearly indicates that those councils who make strategic use of ICT have significant leverage in achieving operational efficiencies and customer satisfaction.
Third, despite what at times appears to be never-ending cascades of reform and ‘modernisation’, councils can still be seen as operating with very bureaucratic styles of management. Almost all facets of Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy apply to councils, which include a strict chain of command by way of hierarchical organisation structures, a division of labour often resulting in silos and rigid rules and regulations. Additionally, organisation culture, influenced by structure, cannot be ignored when implementing ICT initiatives. Leadership is responsible for developing a progressive and collaborative culture around ICT just as it is in any element of an organisation.
Fourth, rapid change in emerging technologies is a major influencing factor in acquiring ICT infrastructure and business applications. There is increasing push to move towards ‘Everything as a Service’ using ‘Cloud’ environments, often with unrealistic expectations of cost-savings and operational efficiencies. Other technological influences include social media, mobility, information security and open data. Still, research around ICT in local government highlights the traditional ‘bureaucratic’ nature of council environments.
Fifth, the socio-economic factors can’t be ignored when considering ICT. The changing demographics of Australian society have seen the types of services provided by councils evolving dramatically over time and this demand-side pressure will continue. Many authors use the term ‘Digital Divide’ to highlight differences in ICT literacy across populations. The extent to which local government is increasingly involved in services to people is the extent to which they will be under increased pressure to provide these services for their constituents.
In summary, preferences for ICT adoption in local government are subject to a range of influences, many of them particular to local government. The broad range of services and diverse stakeholders makes the implementation of ICT initiatives in councils extremely complicated. Yet this does not militate against the fact that ICT is still a core component of any council’s strategic capacity. Additionally it should be emphasised that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach does not work. IT Managers need to engage with their community, councillors, management and staff and need to take a consultative approach. In considering options for ICT adoption councils should be ready to confront the trade-offs that need to be demonstrated by rigorous evaluation.
About the Authors
Bligh Grant is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Public Policy and Governance, University of Technology Sydney (UTS IPPG)
Uday Kulkarni is an experienced technology management professional with a comprehensive understanding of ICT in NSW Local Government, Private and Not-for-Profit Sectors. He is a PhD Candidate at the UTS Institute for Public Policy and Governance (UTS IPPG)
Originally published in the Australian Local Government Yearbook 2017, Edition 24