Just a couple of years ago only a few pioneering councils were attempting to use IT to improve the way they delivered services to local people. Today almost every council in the country is working on an e-government strategy, with interactive services available for everything from council tax payments to reporting broken street lights.
This massive turnaround is the result of the kickstart provided by the Modernising Government initiative and the introduction of the Best Value regime in April 2000, both of which emphasised the role IT can play in improving the way services are delivered.
Yet the danger is that corporate IT departments will forge ahead developing snazzy Web sites, leaving councillors and council staff bewildered in their wake. These "business users" need to be educated in how e-government can help them achieve their service delivery aims so that they can direct developments intelligently.
Encouraging this training is part of the remit of the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea), but council IT managers need to mount their own education offensive, perhaps by working with one or two key councillors or officers who can expound the benefits and opportunities of e-government to colleagues in a language they understand.
Persuasion will also be needed to make the public use online services once they have been developed. A survey for the Central Information Technology Unit, Electronic Government: the view from the queue, found that around two fifths of adults regard electronic service delivery favourably and a further two fifths could be persuaded to use online services. But a significant proportion would require incentives or support and encouragement to get them online.
So it will not be enough for councils simply to dump existing services on to the Web. They will have to think carefully about the design of e-government offerings and make sure that there are real advantages to the public in using them, such as simplified procedures, reduced waiting times or extended times and locations when services are available.
At the same time, they must not disadvantage those people who, for a variety of reasons, cannot or will not use electronic channels. A choice of channels, including old-fashioned face-to-face interaction, must continue to be offered.
Councils must also look at the role the Internet can play in increasing participation in local decision making. The Web has already proved a powerful tool for democracy by enhancing the movement of information, helping lobby groups to mobilise a critical mass of public information and supporting the development of common-interest communities. Councils will need to follow the lead of those authorities, such as Camden, which are looking to create a supportive environment in which community Web sites can flourish.
In fact, e-government has a key role to play in councils' overall social inclusion agenda. The government, in its vision statement Our Information Age, has pointed out that a society with "information have-nots" - excluded from Internet access and other technologies on the grounds of cost or lack of relevant skills or confidence -- would not only be unfair, it would be inefficient.
That means local authorities not only need to ensure that their own online culture and services are inclusive and welcoming to all, but also that they provide the facilities and training opportunities to allow the public to access services from libraries, community centres and other public spaces.
Finally, councils need to take account of the part e-government has to play in delivering Best Value objectives such as increasing the effectiveness, quality and accessibility of services, as well as efficiency.
Defining moments of the past 12 months
February 2000 - 30 housing associations threaten to boycott new tenants in Hackney because of problems with the council's housing benefits service, outsourced to ITNet. Over the course of the year, other councils become embroiled in disputes with outsourcers include Sheffield, Lambeth and Taunton Deane
March - ITNet promises an e-procurement hub for local councils, even as the Office of Government Commerce is launched and assumes responsibility for central government online catalogues such as GCat
April - The Best Value regime comes into force. Local authorities must now demonstrate they have considered all the alternatives for service delivery, including the use of technology-based options
May - Brentwood and Bridgnorth councils become the first to deploy Linux for systems supporting a core function by rolling out Linux-based council tax applications
June - The DETR urges local authorities to set their own targets for electronic service delivery, using central government targets for all services to be e-enabled by 2005 as a guideline
August - Anti-software piracy group the Business Software Alliance promises a crackdown on the local government sector, claiming it to be a leading user of counterfeit and unlicensed software
November - The e-envoy unveils the e-government interoperability framework, providing standards for data interchange and presentation (XML), network security, directories and e-mail across government.
Leeds takes the initiative
Responsible for local government in a lively, prosperous and cosmopolitan city which is the financial capital of the North, Leeds City Council is embracing the digital age enthusiastically. Current and planned projects include: using technology to support lifelong learning; opening up council services to citizens through a variety of e-channels; and implementing e-working initiatives, such as e-procurement, within the council itself.
Yet the often cumbersome and lengthy public sector procurement process can make it hard for authorities like Leeds to push forward with these projects. Leeds' solution has been to move away from procuring specific technologies. Instead, it looks for strategic partners who can help it meet its visions for services over a timescale of typically five years.
"With the pace at which Internet technologies are evolving, by the time we have procured something, it is almost out of date, so flexibility within our contracts is essential," points out Martin Jones of Leeds' corporate IT services department. "The partnership approach also allows us to share the risks and rewards more effectively with suppliers."
Jones is programme manager for one of these partnership-based projects, the Leeds Learning Network (LLN), working alongside his opposite number from the department of education, Patrick Kirk. The LLN is Leeds' local response to the National Grid for Learning, the Government's initiative to promote lifelong learning. Developed with BT Syncordia, the LLN is effectively an ISP service which will link more than 400 sites across the city - including all primary and secondary schools, museums, libraries and leisure centres - to a range of online resources.
Users will be given an e-mail address, which will follow them as they move between educational establishments, and a single sign-on which will allow them to access exactly the same services from any point on the network. This means that, as well as meeting educational needs, the LLN is helping the council address aspects of its social inclusion agenda by providing Internet access to less affluent sectors of the population. The LLN will also provide "safe" access to the Internet for younger users, thanks to content-filtering software from Symantec.
The LLN will also play a supporting role in delivering the council's vision for customer service. Also developed through a commercial partnership, the customer service programme has seen the introduction of 13 one-stop centres and a call centre which dealt with 1.2 million enquiries last year. Now, the council is introducing customer relationship management software from Siebel to provide a front end to existing applications - such as its council tax and housing benefit systems - to give a unified picture of any individual's dealings with the council. This improved access is expected to save the council nearly £500,000 a year in resources, while allowing it to resolve citizen's queries more quickly. The next step will be to make the one-stop service available over the Internet and the council's intranet, so that citizens can raise and track requests for service themselves.
The customer service initiative is backed up by a wider e-government agenda at the council. As well as meeting the IT needs of the one-stop centres and call centre, this programme is looking to: improve the presentation of council information online and increase the number of interactive services available; develop a datawarehouse which will allow information to be shared more easily; develop e-enabled partnership working with other local organisations providing complementary services; and deliver e-working initiatives - such as e-procurement - to allow council staff to work more effectively and efficiently.
Top five concerns
Case study: Bracknell Forest Borough Council
If there is one local authority which can be confident its citizens will welcome electronic service delivery, it is Bracknell Forest, home to the UK headquarters of many leading technology companies. Working in partnership with two of those companies, Novell and BEI Metastorm, Bracknell Forest has created an e-government portal which gives local people secure personalised access to e-government.
Assistant borough IT services manager Ian Slee explains that the council identified six areas for online delivery, but initially decided to concentrate on two.
The first, council tax, has allowed Novell to prove that its technology can deliver personalised, authenticated access for a potential user base of 110,000. Residents can view their council tax accounts, apply for discounts, change their account details and make payments by direct debit or credit or debit card. The service is currently based on batch transfer of data from a VME-based council tax system and manual processing of any data entered by the public through the portal.
The second service has allowed the council's planning department to deliver improved access to information about the progress of planning applications. It uses Web-enabled workflow software from Metastorm, linked to the council's Oracle-based planning application system, to allow the public to view applications and make online comments directly to the relevant planning officer, without the need for special client software or plug-ins.
Slee points out that getting these services online required considerable effort and resources not just from the IT team but also from the department offering the services. "Business users needed to spend time defining and re-engineering their services in order to allow them to be offered online," Slee explains. But this is worth it in an area where two years ago nearly half of the residents had access to the Internet either at home or work. The council is now providing Internet access in libraries and community centres to ensure all residents have access and it will also look at technologies such as digital TV.
Case study:London Borough of Camden
Many councils have set up Web sites and some are implementing call centres, but the London Borough of Camden intends to look at every possible technology in its quest to deliver services to local residents and businesses.
"We are keen to avoid looking at just one particular channel," says Glyn Evans, head of information and communication technologies at Camden. "Government surveys have shown that 25% of the population are resistant to using Internet technologies to access public services and we cannot ignore those people." That is why Camden is working with a consortium of London councils and housing associations on a project to deliver services through interactive TV. It is also planning to set up access points in community centres and libraries where local people will use videoconferencing to speak to specialist staff without travelling to council sites. These will provide a place for local people to access Internet-based services, with help from staff if needed.
Behind the scenes, the council will use technology to support its own staff and enable developments such as telephone-based contact centres. It also intends to offer support to local groups wishing to develop community Web sites providing information and a space for discussion. Camden has just become the first council to consult the local community on its e-government plans: it has distributed a booklet outlining its vision to residents and businesses and will be holding public meetings and commissioning a survey of local people's views.
In parallel with these deliberations, Camden has begun looking for strategic private sector partners to take its vision forward. It has already launched a service to allow students to apply for loans and grants online, working with e-government developer Impower and its technology partner Volantis. While plans for further developments have not yet been agreed, Camden is interested in the ability of the Volantis solution to present Web applications intelligently on a variety of Internet devices, such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants, interactive digital TV, information kiosks and even games consoles.