Councils call for more cash to implement electronic local government
Councils may have to sideline large IT projects designed to improve essential services because of a shortfall of hundreds of millions of pounds in e-government funding. That was the message from local authority IT leaders at the Society of IT Management's (Socitm) annual conference in Birmingham last week.
As the 2005 deadline for delivering all government services electronically approaches, IT managers attending the conference heard that Socitm is stepping up pressure on Whitehall to boost funding levels for the programme.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which is responsible for implementing the local e-government agenda, has already allocated £675m to be spent between 2002 and 2006 to help councils deliver e-government services, more than half of which has already been doled out. But Socitm president Fahri Zihni believes that this is not enough. "It is estimated at Socitm that we need about £2bn for e-government, so that is a £1.3bn funding shortfall," he said.
Socitm's estimate covers the period 2002 to 2005, and is based on its annual IT trends survey.
Zihni, who is chief ICT officer at Wolverhampton Council, has recently raised the issue with e-government minister Phil Hope and urged the government to address the shortfall in next year's spending review, due in the first quarter of 2004.
Socitm said the extra money was needed to recruit and train IT staff and to buy hardware and software. "Systems integration and making systems customer-facing is where the money should be going," said Zihni. To access legacy data and open it up to the citizen is a very expensive business, he added.
But is local government's plea for extra cash justified? There is certainly no shortage of government schemes to help councils to fund e-government and a further £300m will be allocated in the next two financial years.
Councils that have already submitted implementation statements deemed to be satisfactory have so far received two installments of £200,000 to support their e-government strategies, and Whitehall has also spent about £190m on developing national projects, partnerships and technologies to be used across local government.
Councils are mostly spending the funds on setting up customer relationship management-based contact centres and developing transactional websites, according to Brian Westcott, an independent local government consultant who works closely with Socitm.
CRM software enables council staff to access information to answer residents' queries, for example about council tax or housing benefit, promptly.
Such technologies could prove crucial to helping councils to meet government-set performance targets for public services.
Delegates at the conference echoed Zihni's concerns. An IT manager from a southern England council, who asked not to be named, said, "We are trying to do a lot of projects but through a combination of time and lack of money, we are not able to do them. E-procurement is a big one."
Some council IT managers argued that there was a funding bias in favour of central government departments in the allocation of cash for e-government. One council IT chief said, "Central government is getting most of the [e-government funding], but it is local government that delivers most of the front-line services."
Figures from the Improvement and Development Agency revealed that local authorities provide about 700 different services to people, businesses and local communities, ranging from leisure to library services.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said the £675m was designed to put services that are already being delivered by councils online. "It is not about additional funding in the long-term, it is about using the new technology that has been created now to do things better in the long-term," she said.
However, £300m of the £675m e-government allocation has yet to be spent. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that it will be allocated between now and 2006. "The next announcement on that allocation will be made at the end of November," a spokeswoman said.
Socitm was unable to give an exact breakdown of what kinds of electronic services councils were spending the money on. Analysts at the Institute for Public Policy Research said there is a shortfall in e-government funding but were also unable to give an exact figure. They said councils need to spend their IT budgets carefully in order to make a significant difference to local residents.
"There also needs to be a rethink on what the money is used for. There needs to be more concentration on adding public value through e-government projects," said the institute's associate director Ian Kearns. "My concern is that there will not be enough of an impact on the man in the street.
With the government under pressure to sustain increases in public spending and manage high-profile projects that are already under way, such as the £2.3bn NHS IT programme, calls from local government IT leaders for more cash are unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing from ministers.
Although some analysts agree that local government needs more funds to develop relevant electronic services council IT managers will have to wait until next year to find out whether they will get the cash they want.
E-government targets don't address the relevance of services delivered
The government's 2005 e-government target is doing little to encourage the uptake of meaningful services, Derrick Anderson, chief executive of Wolverhampton Council, told delegates at the Socitm annual conference.
He also warned that Implementing Electronic Government statements, which councils must complete to qualify for e-government funding, do not always address the question of how local people could benefit from technology.
"The general target of making all services available electronically by the end of 2005 and the [implementation] statement approach achieves little more than encouraging people to tick boxes without looking at key questions as to whether electronic access has any value to our citizens," he said.
"The real e-governance agenda should be on refocusing ICT and new technologies to change the way councils do things, so that we can provide services that are more relevant to how people live their lives."
Anderson described Wolverhampton Council's bereavement service as a good example of what can be achieved by tailoring IT to people's needs. The service links 12 separate agencies that local residents may need to contact when a relative dies, from benefits departments to the Inland Revenue.
One council IT manager, who asked not to be named, was also sceptical about the 2005 target, and said his focus was on improving services for local people. He said, "Making 100% of services available electronically is never going to happen."