A global study of progress towards e-government shows that, while strict targets are set nationally, it is local action on modernisation that can be most innovative.
A report from public sector IT managers' organisation Socitm and the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea), found that the UK is not alone in setting a demanding schedule for e-government.
Although 2005 may be the deadline for UK town halls to provide online services, other countries are also facing challenging e-government targets, according to the report, Local E-government Now: a worldwide view.
In Canada, for example, the Government On-Line initiative aims to make the country's government "the most connected to its citizens" in the world by 2004. Germany, meanwhile, is working towards a 2005 target for offering as many administrative services electronically as possible.
Examining 36 examples of e-government from 14 countries, the report discovered that e-government success is about much more than meeting deadlines.
Martin Ferguson, e-government adviser at Idea, said, "National targets and prescriptions are playing their part, but these would have limited impact without the local innovation, creativity, application and resourcefulness seen in the case studies presented in this report."
These range from a Web-based school admission project in Stockholm to the acclaimed transactional Web site set up by Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council.
However, despite the examples of best practice included in the report, big hurdles still confront widespread e-government participation in the UK.
Last month the Commons Public Accounts Committee questioned the success of the Government's moves to put Whitehall online. The all-party group of MPs warned that there is a significant danger that, even if the 2005 targets are met, people will not use the online services.
Industry experts say this underlines the importance of delivering local e-government services that match citizens' needs.
Martin Greenwood, Insight programme manager at Socitm, said, "We need to focus on take-up and satisfaction with the services - if people use the services and are not encouraged to come back then the impact of the service will be greatly reduced."
Fortunately, the research, which was sponsored by German software giant SAP, found that many local authorities around the world are moving away from simply automating existing processes in favour of joining up information and services for citizens.
This trend is particularly important given the nature of UK government.
"It is critical here because our systems of government are more complex than most countries. Most people are not interested in how local government is organised; they are interested in accessing services," Greenwood said.
The good news is that the UK appears to be doing well in the international
e-government stakes. Earlier this year a report from global consultancy Accenture placed the UK at sixth position in a table of 23 countries, including Australia, France and the US - a rise from eighth position last year. Researchers praised the UK's "cohesive" e-government strategy.
The UK's e-government agenda has also attracted international attention, according to Greenwood. "Some countries are envious of the UK, with its strong push from the top and its government funding," he said.
"There is no strong federal direction in the US, for example, because local communities within states fund themselves."
Ultimately, it seems that creativity from local authorities will be the critical factor in achieving successful e-government.
Fred Baron, e-government consultant at Idea, explained, "The targets that exist in many countries have helped - however, it is the creativity of trying to solve problems at a local level that will deliver the benefits of e-government to citizens."
UK trailblazers win praise
Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council
Tameside, which is widely acknowledged as one of the UK's e-government trailblazers, has undertaken a range of e-government initiatives. These include setting up a fully transactional Web site which allows residents to make payments for council tax, rent, business rates, mortgages, car park fines and general debts.
East Riding of Yorkshire
The East Riding of Yorkshire Council, which is the largest unitary council in England, faces the challenge of keeping in touch with its rural communities via e-government. Since its creation in 1996, East Riding has established 11 customer service centres and a 16-agent call centre offering a range of services to residents. Young people are also key to the council's agenda, and it has produced a specially designed Web site to engage this section of the community.
Essex County Council
As part of its commitment to promoting community education, Essex has created a curriculum Web site where users are encouraged to be fully involved in the site's content and development. Launched in November 2000, the "e-gfl", as it is known, is now used in almost 600 schools and colleges.
European partners reach out to citizens
Republic of Ireland: Ennis
In September 1997, the town of Ennis in County Clare won a nationwide competition organised by Telecom Eireann (now Eircom) to become Ireland's "information age town". Since then, thanks to £15m of investment from Eircom, it has developed an extensive IT infrastructure. This included the provision of subsidised computers for residents and the creation of a digital broadband ring around the town. Schoolchildren have also benefited from the project, with the four secondary, six primary and two special schools in Ennis now having an average student-to-computer ratio of 9:1.
Sweden: Stockholm Schools
An initiative by the admission board of upper secondary schools in Stockholm led to the introduction of a Web-based e-service solution for young people applying to attend the city's voluntary upper secondary schools. Launched in the winter of 2001, the service handled 90% of pupils' applications over the Internet in the first year of its operation.
The municipality of Prato, north of Florence, has implemented software that allows tax declarations to be submitted online. Once completed, the electronic form can be printed in the government's standard format or filed in the appropriate databases. The software is available free of charge from the municipality's Web site.
North America connects to services
Canada: Service New Brunswick
The Canadian province of New Brunswick describes itself as "the first jurisdiction in the world to establish an information highway secretariat" and is acknowledged as being one of the global e-government trailblazers. Founded in 1990, Service New Brunswick is a crown agency offering single-window access to services, which is now regarded as one of the world's leading e-government initiatives.
US: Miami Dade
Miami Dade, a large county authority, is developing a county-wide e-government framework. This will enable it to deliver Internet-based services to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The authority has identified four critical success factors in developing its e-government framework: leadership, governance, competence and technology.
US: City of Mobile
Mobile, the third-largest city in the state of Alabama, has linked back-office information from more than 70 separate departments to create a citizen-focused Web site. The City of Mobile's Web site is regarded as one of the top e-government sites in the US.
Australia: building on Olympic gold
City of Sydney
Using the 2000 Olympics as the springboard for developing the city's Web presence, Sydney has developed a Web site offering both information and transactions for most of the council's services. The system, which went live in early 1999 and was redesigned in 2001, is database-driven, and can connect to a variety of the council's back-office databases.
This was first published in October 2002