Juggling public purse equals greater accountability

Councils flush with budget yet count every cent

When it comes to dealing with the public purse, government IT professionals claim they are under more pressure to be accountable.

And not everyone can withstand the heat. Only last week in the US, Louis Gutierrez, CIO of the City of Massachusetts resigned claiming it might force the government to reconsider IT funding.

In a letter to staff, Gutierrez said the failure to fund IT projects not only endangers morale, but contributes to "a sense that IT does not matter, or does not matter enough, to obtain adequate funding, adding that "much of what I do is about these investments - deciding among them; working with our team to administer their finances; working with our team on the architecture, infrastructure or frameworks to get the most out of shared investments; trying to understand how to fit lots of demand into tight capital budgets".

In Australia, IT professionals working in local government said IT budgets basically just keep the lights on.

Local governments, even those flush with an annual operational budget of nearly $40 million, have to be careful with every cent, and carefully consider projects to ensure a return on investment on an IT project.

Stephen Bool, information services manager with Goulburn Mulwaree Council, said the local government body cannot afford to be bleeding edge. The approach, he said, is to ensure the technology used is proven in some shape or form.

"Our approach to new IT gear is what is available in the market would be handy for us to have; what we really have to have and very often the end decision is solely based on need," Bool said.

"So far everything is going well; we have a budget of about $1.6 million for information services, core information technology, communication, graphical systems and record systems." The council has an operational budget of around $38 million.

Dirk Holwerd, director of corporate services for Goulburn Mulwaree Council, said each budget requires a look at current IT priorities, how it fits in with productivity and how to meet statutory obligations and requirements placed on government authorities.

"One aspect in NSW is how rate pegging is applied and each year the minister says council can raise rates around CPI (Consumer Price Index) but technology spend does not increase with CPI, and neither does a whole heap of other expenditure," Holwerd said.

"I guess in local government terms limited funds are a relative thing, because it is based on the size of the council, and our rural neighbours certainly consider limited funds in a very different way.

"One reason we survive is by taking the view that technology does give us the capacity to meet needs; I guess as we move more towards best practice we find we can keep a lid on other costs like staff and other sorts of communication devices."

The Australian Government Information Management Office was unavailable to comment. How do you survive a tight IT budget? E-mails to Michael_Crawford@idg.com.au

- With Linda Rosencrance

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