While local government may not be at the bleeding edge of e-business, it probably leads all other sectors in the proportion of organisations which are developing firm e-business (or e-government) strategies. That is thanks to the impetus provided by the Modernising Local Government white paper and the targets set by the Government for electronic service delivery in the public sector.
"Most authorities are looking at formalising their e-government strategies," says Karen Swinden, a director of public sector IT consultancy Kable, "although they are all at very different stages. For example, Tameside and Three Rivers are ahead in that they have implemented customer contact centres which allow citizens to contact the authority face-to-face, through a call centre or by fax, letter, home PC, internet, public kiosks and so on. But most authorities have only just started developing interactive Web sites or installing call centres."
Market research by Kable suggests local government spends about £180m a year on outsourced IT services, with the total value of outsourcing contracts standing at around £1.3bn.
Swinden thinks demand for traditional outsourcing will grow but the evidence of invitations to tender currently appearing in the Official Journal of the European Union suggests new contracts will be focused on the provision of IT infrastructures to support customer contact centres. This will include customer relations management systems, Internet, intranet and extranet solutions, kiosks and call centres.
"In addition, the managed service market is increasing and the numbers of these contracts will grow as authorities adopt the principles of Best Value and test all of their services against the market," Swinden suggests.
Swinden thinks online security will be a major issue for local authorities. However, with few councils currently offering online transactions such as paying council tax, it is an area which has not been explored in much depth by most.
One exception, Swinden points out, is Bracknell Forest, which is starting to offer information and transactional services accessed through a personal account protected by an individual code and password and dual-key encryption.
Most sectors are experiencing difficulty recruiting the IT staff they need, especially for e-business projects. However, this is nothing new for local government, where skills shortages have always been a headache.
Research by Socitm, the society for local government IT managers, suggests that around half of all local authorities have problems with retention and recruitment of IT staff. The main reasons seem to be an inability to offer competitive rates of pay and career packages.
Integrating process and IT
The drive to e-government has had a profound impact on the way councils are viewing IT and its role in delivering services.
"Most authorities are starting to recognise that e-government is not about implementing a series of IT projects but about business process re-engineering," says Swinden.
This requires an enormous shift in culture and that local authorities have to answer the question: how do you persuade an organisation steeped in decades of tradition to behave more like a dotcom? "Those authorities which have been able to grasp this agenda have been those with a champion able to drive the process through all areas of the authority. But that champion has needed to be very senior within the organisation, typically either the chief executive or the elected council leader," Swinden warns.
www.info4local.gov.uk - A gateway for local government-related information published on the Web sites of central government departments and agencies
www.idea.gov.uk - The Improvement and Development Agency, tasked with developing and sharing best practice in local government
www.lga.gov.uk - Local Government Association
www.socitm.gov.uk - Society of IT Management for senior IT staff in local government
www.e-envoy.gov.uk - The office of the e-envoy is responsible for detailed work in support of the e-government agenda, including emerging standards and frameworks in areas such as interoperability
www.citu.gov.uk/research/viewqueue/index.htm - Electronic Government: the view from the queue, an invaluable report on public attitudes to electronic service delivery
www.kablenet.com - News and research on public sector IT.
The necessary skills
The push to e-government means that all kinds of mainstream Web skills - including design and animation as well as technical skills such as HTML and ASP - are in great demand within local government, according to Paul Wise, a recruitment consultant with Robert Half International, which recruits IT staff for both public and private sectors.
However, despite the social inclusion agenda of the public sector, which may eventually make it one of the strongest advocates of non-PC devices such as interactive digital TV and Wap phones, he has seen no demand for these skills as yet. "There are definitely some councils looking at those technologies, but it will probably be two or three years before the technology comes within their budget," Wise suggests.
The public sector is recruiting in networking, support and, increasingly, integration. Wise attributes these requirements to the large user bases and diverse infrastructures typical of local authorities. Wise says the range of technologies and large number of projects and roll-outs taking place within local government make the support roles particularly attractive to candidates.
This bucks the general IT recruitment trend in local government, where relatively low salaries make it hard to attract most skills. Another hurdle is the tendency for councils to work with versions of products that are a year behind the mainstream. This means that, although there may be plenty of people with these skills, they are reluctant to come on board because they would rather be involved with the latest releases.
The typical hardware and software ecosystem
A survey of software used by local authorities carried out by the Society of IT Management (Socitm), has identified applications across 50 different functional areas, including housing, social services, education, leisure, planning, regulation, burials and crematoria, highways, direct labour, financials, personnel, revenues, democracy, supplies, assets, legal services, libraries, environmental health, general management and property management.
The survey suggests that while local authorities are still developing some applications in-house, they are increasingly moving to packaged solutions, with hardware consisting of a now stable mix of ICL mainframes and Unix or NT servers, with Windows on the desktop.
In the "front office", Socitm has found that almost all authorities now have Web sites and many are promoting e-mail as an alternative means of communication with the public, as well as using it internally. There is also considerable interest in call centre technology and customer relationship management systems. although few authorities have a call centre at present, nearly two-thirds expect to have introduced one by the end of this year.
Providing access through digital TV to the services currently being offered by councils through their Web sites is expected to become practical from 2002. A few authorities have developed smartcard applications for accessing or paying for council services, but these are felt to be expensive and difficult to implement.