Council chiefs hamper e-government plans

Local authority chief executives are hampering Tony Blair's e-government plans, and almost half of councils have no IT security...

Local authority chief executives are hampering Tony Blair's e-government plans, and almost half of councils have no IT security policy and more than a quarter do not have an agreed data protection policy.

These are some of the stark findings in the latest IT Trends in Local Government survey from the Society of IT Management (Socitm), the local authority IT managers' organisation.

The annual survey - one of the most authoritative overviews of the state of UK IT - reveals sharp differences between local authorities, and points to problems in meeting Tony Blair's target of having all services online by 2005. The survey also questions the value of some of the centrally imposed targets.

Brian Westcott, editor of the report, told "Local authorities are progressing towards e-government, but all is not sweetness and light. The major problem to come out of the survey is the lack of knowledge and commitment to modernising e-government by senior decision-makers in local authorities."

Heads of information and communications technology (ICT) believe that fewer than half of council chief executives have a good understanding of e-government (42%), and the figure is just 14% for councillors.

Support for the 2005 targets has fallen during the past year. "They are increasingly seen as a blunt instrument, forcing councils to introduce e-services regardless of public benefit," said the Socitm report.

"Targets were seen as good value initially, but are now seen as unfocused," said Westcott. "I think targets should be linked to public take-up. It would be far better to select targets for services that the public wants."

The key obstacles to delivering e-government, according to council IT directors, are a lack of finance and "just too many initiatives to cope with". This may cause raised eyebrows in Whitehall, with total ICT spending by all councils topping £1.8bn in 2001.

The overall figure disguises "considerable variations between individual authorities", according to Socitm, with IT departments in some councils facing budget cuts of 30%, even as the demands made of them increase.

A significant minority (17%) of councils have had trouble recruiting ICT managers during the past year, while the number of ICT staff in local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland rose by 10% last year, to 20,100, with a further 2,000 working four councils within outsourced companies.

However, 90% of ICT heads believe their departments lack the skills to meet the e-government agenda. Socitm estimates that local authorities need a further 2,000 staff nationally, particularly web development, business analysis, project management and security specialists.

The outsourcing of ICT services have grown significantly in the past year, as has the use of consultants, although there has been a switch away from technical assignments towards more strategy reviews, business analysis and outsourcing studies.

The technology profile of local authorities continues to change. IT directors consider the most important technologies needed to modernise are the Internet, contact centres and document management technology.

Almost every local authority now has a Web site; more than 30% have a contact centre; 60% of authorities use document management technology, mostly to capture paper documents in electronic form; and 14% of authorities now have smartcard applications.

The use of video for conferencing, or for providing communications between public and the council, is still growing. The technology is used by nearly 30% of authorities,

The predicted demise of the mainframe in local authorities has not occurred, "with 22% predicting the same level of use over the next two years", said Socitm.

Windows NT was the most popular operating system (94%), followed by Windows 98 and earlier versions of the Microsoft operating system (88%). Windows 2000 (63%) was pushed into fourth place by Sun Solaris (75%).

Use of Sun's Solaris is expected to increase and many expect Linux to grow in popularity - at present it is used in only 18% of authorities. Novell systems are used by more than half of local authorities, but half of Novell users expect it to continue its decline next year.

The Socitm survey was based on detailed responses from IT directors at more than 200 of the UK's 441 councils.

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