Plugging the gaps as e-deadline nears

Councils have until December 2005 to deliver services electronically. Continuing our focus on e-government challenges, Liz Warren...

Councils have until December 2005 to deliver services electronically. Continuing our focus on e-government challenges, Liz Warren finds out what help is available to local authorities which fall behind, and how the benefits will be passed on to the public

The national strategy for local e-government laid down that all local government services should be made available electronically by December 2005. The strategy also made it clear that this does not mean that all services should be provided on the web, but rather that delivery of all services should be underpinned by new technologies that allow them to be delivered in ways that are more convenient and helpful for users.

Jim Thornton, director of e-government at the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), which promotes local government best practice, says councils are making good progress towards the strategy. The latest Implementing E-government statements from councils, which set out their plans and priorities, reported that about two-thirds of local authority services are e-enabled.

According to Thornton, all councils now have champions drawn from elected members and senior council staff to take the agenda forward and every council has a website. Of the websites, 28% were capable of online transactions by the end of 2003, which was up from 6% in 2002. About 71% expect to offer transactions by the end of this year.

In addition, most councils have already implemented one-stop shops or contact centres and have customer relationship management initiatives that are not just about installing technology, but about transforming the culture of the council. Away from front-line electronic service delivery, Thornton says good progress is being made in areas such as e-procurement.

Naturally, some councils are struggling with e-government "In any major change, there will be a number of people who are first and a number of stragglers," says Mary Wintershausen, independent local government consultant.

"There are very few councils which are not recognising the advantages of using technology. A few are saying that e-government is not a priority because they have so much to do in other areas for their comprehensive performance assessment. But there is increasing recognition that you cannot end up with a good assessment unless you are making use of technology. The emphasis now is on modernisation," she says.

The councils making the best progress, says Thornton, are those with "strong leaders with a vision of what they want to achieve. Ownership of e-government must be by the top people in the organisation - both members and officers - and they must have the capacity and resources to do the job."

For the small number of councils which have been identified to be struggling, IDeA has created an implementation support unit. Thornton says, "We offer experienced programme managers who have specialist skills in working with politicians and IT managers. They are able to help councils identify the specific barriers to progress, show them which levers can make e-government happen and help them to create and implement an action plan."

The agency will only send in the implementation support unit if asked and failing councils will not be penalised if they do not meet the targets. However, they will be denied access to the additional funds that result from submitting a successful Implementing E-government statement. This is proving a powerful incentive for failing councils to invite the implementation support unit in to help them kick-start their e-government programmes. "It is often not a lack of will but a lack of capacity and understanding," Thornton says.

There are a number of issues that are still creating barriers to meeting and moving beyond the 2005 targets. At its most basic level, says Glyn Evans, chairman of the Information Age Government Group at the local government IT association Socitm, some councils are struggling to recruit and retain the right technical staff, and are having to contend with years of under-investment in infrastructure. Their priority is simply to have a base from which to tackle targets.

However, even councils that are well advanced with e-government strategies are wrestling with a number of issues, such as the need for better integration of data sources. "Local government delivers about 650 services, many of which have common information requirements, but the information sources are not effectively joined up," says Jim Haslem, chief executive of the Local E-government Standards Body and immediate past president of Socitm.

Few councils see system integration as a barrier, according to the latest report, IT Trends in Local Government, from Socitm published at the end of last year. But they are putting off further system integration because of concerns about data protection. "There is still a considerable amount of aversion to taking risks around data protection," Haslem says. "I was disappointed when the Children Bill was published that there was not a clearer definition of what the government will do to resolve data protection issues."

Thornton says this is a national problem for all branches of government and that the Office of the E-envoy is working on some answers.

Another tricky issue councils must deal with is authentication and identification. How can citizens prove who they are when using e-enabled services, and how can they be sure they are dealing with the council when submitting sensitive information? Haslem feels standards will be central to developing user confidence in online identities and that central and local government must work together quickly to define authentication processes.

Evans says focusing on high-profile areas such as benefit payments means councils have missed a trick. "This is because some of the really high-volume transactions, such as booking leisure centre facilities and renewing library books do not require a high degree of authentication," he says.

The complexity of many personalised services is also holding some local authorities back. For example, council tax involves complex data relationships with several people in a household potentially being jointly and severally liable, but all members of the household should be able to look at their bill online.

Similarly, many benefit payments involve making decisions based on detailed information gathered from claimants. Thornton says such service users are typically more vulnerable people who are not necessarily internet users. Yet, despite these difficulties, some councils are making progress by equipping staff with laptops so they can handle verification of information in the client's home.

Wintershausen says she has not seen any area where all councils are struggling. "Some local authorities may feel it sensible for them to stay away from particular services at present, but other councils are seeing good results when tackling those services," she says.

Some elected members and local government officials have yet to realise that e-government presents opportunities to transform processes, create efficiency savings and deliver joined-up services. According to the Socitm report, 40% of councils say their elected members still feel e-government is distorting local priorities, is not a priority, or cannot be cost-justified.

"There are signs elected members do increasingly appreciate the ability of e-government to contribute to service and policy priorities, but it is not a natural link yet," Haslem says.

Evans agrees that the more successful councils are those that can show how e-government is a business development issue rather than a technology initiative. He thinks most councils will not stall or slip back once the 2005 target has been achieved because "they don't see e-government as just another initiative. It is not like compulsory competitive tendering, where several councils did as little as possible until it went away. Some people still see it as just electronic service delivery, but most are clear that it is really about how business processes can be changed to make the best use of technology.

"The social pressures for councils to deliver more customer-focused services will not go away, and most councils see e-government as a driver to enable fundamental change. For them, the 2005 target is just the start of the process."

Other government initiatives, such as the Children Bill currently passing through Parliament, will also require significant underpinning from e-government technologies. The Audit Commission is likely to take note of the correlation between councils receiving excellent evaluations under the Comprehensive Performance Assessment process and those making progress on e-government.

Evans says, "At the moment, only a small part of the assessment is dependent on progress with e-government. By changing the criteria, central government and the Audit Commission could significantly increase the drivers for e-government without increasing the available funding."

However, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) caused some consternation among councils at the end of last year by issuing a consultation paper, Priority Services and Transformation Outcomes, which appeared to link continued funding for e-government to e-enablement of specific services. "For a number of councils, it was seen as a diversion away from local priorities to national ones," Wintershausen explains.

Councils made a strong case for a more locally-defined component. The ODPM responded with final guidelines that reduced the number of specific services that councils must deliver online by the end of 2005. Implementation of other services may now be achieved in line with local priorities, but councils must commit to rolling some of them out to receive further funding in 2005/6. Finally, there are some services which are meant to stretch authorities at the leading edge to ensure e-enabled services are not only available but actually used.

Haslem says, "The ODPM's desire to push the boundaries on what people were expecting to achieve is not a bad thing, because the point of e-government is not just to get the technology and infrastructure in place but to exploit it."

Moreover, these new targets, coupled with linking e-government with service transformation and the wider pressures in society for technology-enabled processes, mean councils are unlikely to slip back once they have met the 2005 targets.

"There is more to e-government than electronic service delivery and, for the most part, we still do not know what that means," Wintershausen says. "We will only find out over the next five or 10 years how to incorporate technology to the point where it is just part of everyone's job and part of delivering every service. In five years' time, we will be working with things we cannot even envisage now."

Thornton agrees, "Once people start to use these services and they and local authorities see the advantages, they will not want to go back. Those authorities which are making good progress are not relaxing but are asking how to use e-government platforms to drive further benefits."

Birmingham hits targets with virtual team   

Glyn Evans, director of business solutions and IT at Birmingham City Council, attributes a large part of the authority's success in meeting the 2005 e-government targets well ahead of the deadline to top-level commitment.  

The council's deputy leader, councillor Stewart Stacey, took a personal interest in ensuring the council achieved the target by the end of March. Birmingham now has all its services online and has carried out some back-office integration. 

Another factor in Birmingham's success, says Evans, was the way the council structured its response to targets. It created a virtual team which provided corporate resources and skills for projects, yet devolved design and implementation to individual departments. 

Evans says, "We did not try to centralise activity and we did not just leave people to get on with it. We had a strong core team to manage the process, yet practical help for individual departments was available when it was needed." 

The council also involved external partners, such as its outsourcing supplier ITNet, so that it could draw on outside skills and knowledge where necessary. 

Two technical approaches will allow the council to move forward even more quickly with its e-government programme. One is the use of XML to allow data to be moved between back-office systems and the customer relationship management system, and the other has been to create reusable components that can be slotted into different business areas. For example, the council has a payments system which can be bolted onto any service that involves taking payments. 

"We have laid a foundation for how we want the council to operate in the future," Evans says. "The key challenges are how we manage information as a critical resource for the council, and how we run our processes to deliver that information where it is needed."

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