Buckinghamshire county and district councils are developing an innovative communications network to deliver joined-up online public services using government funds.
Eighteen months ago, Buckinghamshire County Council formed the Bucksconnect partnership with Aylesbury Vale, Chiltern, Wycombe and South Buckinghamshire district councils. The councils' aim was to meet the needs of their communities by delivering joined-up online services.
Using £2m of government funding, the Buckinghamshire councils pooled resources and developed the Bucksconnect network. They implemented the IT infrastructure needed to start delivery of the e-government programme in an 18-month timeframe.
"Buckinghamshire is run along the traditional council infrastructure lines of county, district and parish councils, rather than a single unitary authority," said Ken Boxhall, Buckinghamshire County Council's head of IT services.
"This means the public can receive a fragmented service and are left wondering who to contact if a street lamp is not working, or if there is a hole in the road. Previously, there had been no single point of contact, so people had been calling the wrong councils and departments.
"Through Bucksconnect the community is able to access information from one source via the internet, without the need to know what council area they live in. By ensuring people get to the right resource first time, we will save time and money by reducing wasted management time.Most importantly, the delivery of information will be driven by the community's needs."
Before this stage was reached, the first project for the partnership was to build a county-wide broadband network. In 2001 Buckinghamshire County Council had contracted network services provider Telindus to design, build and manage a high-speed, IP backbone to service all local government agencies, libraries, district councils and schools.
The four main points of presence for the network were located close to each of the district councils' offices. It therefore made sense to extend this network to provide county-wide interconnection for Bucksconnect.
"Telindus had made the original network future-proof, so we just needed to add to the existing infrastructure, which was extremely cost-effective," said Paul Dore, networks team leader at Buckinghamshire County Council.
"It was important to provide an infrastructure that would support the delivery of Bucksconnect and any additional e-government projects that may happen in the future. For example, connecting parish councils, partner organisations such as charities, outsourced housing and suppliers and other council offices such as tourist and leisure facilities."
The primary benefit of the new network is that using a single infrastructure has reduced overall costs and improved efficiency for the five authorities.
For example, South Buckinghamshire District Council used to have its own internet service, but now it gets internet services through the shared network.
The cost of the BT private circuit, which is used to connect South Bucks to the core network, will pay for itself in terms of the future sharing of applications.
One example of a future shared application is geographic information system data mapping. Instead of having five systems for mapping data, the councils share just one.
The councils are now linked by high-speed broadband technology that will allow huge amounts of data to move quickly between them. Their electronic data systems will also be linked, making it possible to access information about each other's services more efficiently.
The second major Bucksconnect project was the establishment of web portal Bucksonline, which provides a single point of contact for the public.
Bucksonline, currently at the pilot stage, includes an A-Z list of local government contacts and "Bucksmaps". This service enables users to view information on community facilities such as doctors, schools and railway services by entering their postcode.
Aylesbury Vale and Wycombe district councils are also including information on recent planning applications, links to local plan details and contacts for planning and building control as part of a trial.
Bucksconnect has also been trialling an out-of-hours telephone service called Bucksanswerpoint. The public can call this single number with enquiries about adult learning, council tax, electoral registration, environmental health, housing, benefits, libraries, refuse and recycling and trading standards across all the different councils.
The network is based on a core 200mbps backbone with load balancing enabled on all routed links via private circuits. The councils are linked and their data protected via firewalls from Check Point.
Rules were added to each firewall so that only specific resources can be accessed on each of the authorities' networks. In some cases, encryption of data was necessary to satisfy data protection requirements, and the firewalls perform this task using IPsec or 3DES encryption.
Smaller satellite council sites are either connected directly to the appropriate council network, or to the Buckinghamshire Council network core, depending on the cost implications.
Such connections are typically via an SHDSL connection at 2.3mbps, through a 2mbps BT Megastream connection or a BT LES 10 connection at 10mbps.
Despite concerns that many local authorities will not meet the government's target of delivering all main services online by 2005, the latest Economist Intelligence Unit E-Readiness report suggested that the UK is forging ahead of other countries with its e-agenda.
The report ranks countries worldwide on their e-business environment and how amenable they are to internet-based opportunities. It places the UK in second place behind Denmark.
This status has largely been driven by the UK government's 2005 deadline. With this aim, local authorities across the UK have been struggling to deliver seamless, online public services for a number of years, and the county and district councils of Buckinghamshire were no exception, until now.