Newcastle City Council last week announced that it now provides electronic access to all of its services, meeting Tony Blair’s national deadline 21 months ahead of schedule.
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The authority joins Birmingham and Tameside councils in beating the December 2005 e-government deadline.
All Newcastle’s official forms are now available online, including planning applications, housing benefit and council tax benefit claims, as well as schools admissions and transfers applications.
Local residents can access services using Newcastle’s website, over the phone by officers operating back-office electronic systems and via public access terminals in libraries or kiosks in public places.
But this is by no means the end of the e-government work at Newcastle, said Fred Stephen, head of corporate ICT at the council.
“We see this as just the start, a phase in the overall project,” he said. “Although we have proper e-government systems in most cases, a few areas have just electronic forms. The intention is to fully automate the systems over the next 12 months.”
The council set itself an early deadline as part of the government’s Local Public Service Agreement incentive scheme, which is designed to make targets flexible depending on the authority, Stephen said.
As a result of hitting the March 2004 deadline, Newcastle has been rewarded with £1m worth of “credit approval” for borrowing money for public projects.
Newcastle placed a lot of emphasis on user involvement to ensure the tight deadlines were met, Stephen said.
“We engaged with departments early in the process and we had to bring in some tight governance measures such as naming and shaming departments that were falling behind,” he said. “As a result, we created competition between different departments. We also brought in a specific project manager from outside, investing some of the money we got from central government.”
Glyn Evans, chairman of the information age government group at Socitm, said getting services online is a step in the right direction but that it opens up a number of new challenges.
“Firstly, you have to gain an understanding about what the customers really want so you can add value to the electronic services,” he said. “The real challenge is creating a comprehensive approach to authentication, so people can track as well as access services online.”
City Service, a new organisation within Newcastle council, is aiming to further improve and modernise a range of services with a three-year investment programme.
One of the first initiatives saw conferencing facilities launched at the start of April, allowing people to contact specialist officers direct over a live video link on a computer screen from remote customer service centres.