Think big, start small, get online

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Think big, start small, get online

Tameside Council is on track to get 767 services online two years ahead of schedule, writes Karl Cushing

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council in Greater Manchester has embraced e-commerce, customer relationship management (CRM) and portal technology as part of its blueprint for improving local government services.

The council has created a Web-based, integrated IT system that builds on its extensive legacy systems and takes in existing customer-facing channels such as the telephone while providing a foundation for new ones, such as Internet kiosks and call centres.

Tameside started looking at updating its systems in September 1997, when it formulated its Access to Public Services policy document. The ultimate goal was to become more customer-centred.

However, according to the council's strategic projects manager Dave Hutchings, its early experiments were largely unsuccessful. It even trialled videoconferencing, putting facilities in public buildings, but "nobody really liked it", he says. So in 1998 the council took a new tack and formulated a strategy of using a single, Internet-based system supporting multiple channels.

"We adopted a think big, start small approach and went for low-hanging fruit first," explains Hutchings. The key concerns were to ensure the council did not allow itself to become overstretched and to get buy-in from the end-users.

One early project was a system of e-forms that enabled staff at the front end to collect and pass information into the back office more efficiently. "It snowballed from there," says Hutchings.

The Customer First project is based around an interactive Web site with more than 6,000 pages.

It provides easy access to information and allows customers to send information to the council and request services simply and conveniently.

As well as the CRM components, the Web site is a fully transactional e-commerce system and is supported by a 24-hour call centre with linked customer services.

A portal facility was launched in January, enabling users to set up a personal profile and receive news and information about relevant services. The next step is to create portals aimed at specific groups. Also in the offing is an e-procurement system and a housing service that will enable people to look at the available housing association properties online.

The council, which has spent about £1.5m on the project since 1998, partnered with IT services and consulting firm Sopra Group and Hutchings is very happy with the results. "They have been excellent," he says. "Good quality stuff; always on time and to cost."

Tameside is a Beacon council, which means it is committed to meeting the Government's target of providing all 767 of its services electronically two years ahead of the main e-government deadline of 2005. Hutchings says it is currently getting about 25 services a month online and is already 69% of the way there. "It is very encouraging," he says. "It's going great. Everything is working to plan."

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