E-government: islands of expertise

E-government is changing the way citizens communicate with their councils. But do all these councils communicate with each other?...

E-government is changing the way citizens communicate with their councils. But do all these councils communicate with each other? Liz Warren reports on the cultural issues that are inhibiting the sharing of experience

What is it about public sector culture that makes it hard for good ideas in one place to be picked up somewhere else? The recent report, Local E-government Now 2003, by local government IT managers association Socitm and the Improvement and Development Agency, paints a positive picture of the progress councils have made so far with the e-government agenda. Yet it also claimed that progress could be faster if councils and different professional groups were better at sharing their experiences and learning from each other.

The public sector is often compared unfavourably with the private sector when it comes to implementing change. Patrick Manuel, a consultant with independent consultancy Vega, points out that companies are often able to achieve dramatic change only when their continued existence is threatened. Local authorities simply do not face the same drivers and cannot be expected to make such extreme changes.

Moreover, says independent consultant Mary Wintershausen, co-author of the e-government report, the public sector is probably more open and more comfortable with sharing knowledge than private sector companies which are competing with each other. There is also a tradition of trying to share good practice, especially within professional groups.

Where councils tend to fall down, she says, is moving knowledge between service silos or from one type of authority to another. She points out that e-government is often seen as "a corporate thing that happens from the centre and deals with things like call centres". Front-line staff working in areas such as social care, housing, transport and the environment are quietly implementing technology to improve aspects of their work as professionals. This, says Wintershausen, is the real heart of e-government: simply finding better ways to do things for the benefit of citizens. Yet it is the lessons from these kinds of service improvements that councils find it hardest to share and, especially, to re-interpret for different services.

She cites the case of a city council working with a bus company to use global positioning by satellite to track the position of buses and provide real-time information on arrivals to screens around the city. "I am sure they are disseminating that work widely to transport professionals in other councils - but is it being passed on to people who run meals on wheels, school buses, refuse collection or other areas which operate vehicle fleets within the same council?" she asks. "Knowledge of that type so often isn't being shared in that way."

Barriers to sharing

Local authorities do not share across different professional groups because the history of local government has divided the authority into distinct professional groups.

"While particular professionals do share knowledge to some extent between authorities, because they have the same professional issues, there is little recognition that there is much they can share from one service silo to another," says David Cullen, head of the local government division of consultancy Hedra. This isolation is reinforced by repeated attacks by central government, the media and others, which encourage council employees to fall back into their "professionalism".

At the same time, local political agendas conspire against co-operation between local authorities. Each council perceives itself as unique, a view augmented by the way reorganisation and boundary changes create antagonisms between authorities in the fight for continued existence.

In addition, the local political complexion of the council can influence where its priorities lie, whether that is education or planning and the environment. Wintershausen points out that the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering entrenched this culture still further by setting different parts of the council or different councils against each other.

Manuel suggests this history has fostered a very proprietorial approach to all kinds of information. "The feeling is that it's mine and I am going to keep it and I am not going to give it to anyone," he explains. He thinks that if the Freedom of Information Act, which will come into full force over the next two years, can change attitudes so that people see themselves as custodians of information rather than owners, it will encourage greater openness and sharing in all areas.

Cullen agrees that what is needed is a new perspective which will help councils understand the common elements in different service silos or across different types of council. He thinks that the "customer" perspective driving much of the e-government agenda at the moment is proving particularly effective at identifying these common requirements in terms of process and systems. Wintershausen also thinks that e-government has been one of the biggest drivers for sharing knowledge, overcoming some of these cultural barriers.

However, another way in which local government is disadvantaged compared to the private sector is in the way innovations are funded. "Funding comes in packages with a label on them: it must be spent in this financial year or on a particular group or in a particular area which has been targeted for regeneration," Wintershausen points out.

She says this presents councils which want to develop the kind of cross-boundary projects that would really drive e-government forward with the challenge of finding ways to argue that they should still have the money, even though they want to spend some of it in areas which fall outside those narrow criteria.

Wintershausen gives the example of using regeneration budgets targeted at specific localities to develop e-government initiatives. This can result in part of a city having state-of-the-art e-government solutions, which are extremely effective, yet the council has no budget to roll out its expertise to other areas.

The public sector should also work harder at sharing best practice on the sharing and learning process itself. As Manuel points out, "The police service consists of 43 forces, all of which have identities and cultures. But if any of them wants to implement a new system, they will see what everyone else is doing."

Of course, with all budgets under pressure, councils are often too busy to find the time to talk to others who are keen to learn. Those who could be on the receiving end also suffer. "Budget pressures mean training and time for thinking get cut, so it becomes more and more challenging to get space to innovate and to share," Wintershausen points out. Manuel says that, as with any cultural change, improving the way information is shared needs to be actively promoted by senior managers and efforts should be suitably rewarded.

What is best practice?

Many of the umbrella organisations, such as Socitm and the Local Government Association, and government bodies the Office of the E-Envoy and the Improvement and Development Agency, are trying to support the learn and sharing process. Manuel praises the amount of guidance they provide through the web and other channels but warns that it may be in danger of being ignored if councils start to experience "initiative fatigue".

Cullen agrees that the forums created by these bodies have a positive impact on the process of sharing knowledge, although he thinks they could provide more proactive support through consultancy and education.

However, he sees a major flaw in their perception of what is best practice. "We need best practice frameworks that can be shared across the sector and get you 80% of the way for 20% of the effort, together with alternate practice case studies that show the work involved in customising those frameworks for particular citizen groups. The danger is that the customisation work and specifics of the implementation get published as 'best practice' when they're not. We need to refer to that side of things as implementation case studies. That would also help open us up to discussing bad experiences and things to be avoided."

Wintershausen agrees that the historical dominance of professionally-led departments means councils find it hard to tease out underlying best practice in terms of new processes or new applications of technology. "Councils need to get better at recognising best practice not just as being of use where it was first pioneered but also where else it might be applied. It is a question of widening understanding beyond small, specific innovations. They need to take the broad view of ideas, rather than seeing them only in the context of a specific service silo."

A manifesto for change

  • Don't just look to the middle for innovation but look at how front-line professionals are using technology to improve their services

  • Acknowledge the history that makes it hard for the public sector to share and learn - and then look for new perspectives (such as the citizen-centric one) that make it easier to identify common elements in different services

  • View service-specific projects as implementations of best practice, not the best practice itself, and work out how that project might be generalised and applied to other services

  • Identify and adopt best practice for becoming a learning organisation in which people effectively share and learn from each other

  • Include an element in budgets for learning and sharing so there are the resources to support these tasks.

Case study:  Westminster targets generic solutions

Westminster City Council is implementing a customer service initiative which will touch every area of the council's operations - and the project director, Simon Norbury, says sharing good ideas developed in one area of the council with other services is at the heart of Westminster's strategy.  

While the most visible aspect of Westminster's customer service initiative is a new contact centre, Norbury points out that this is backed by a second project focusing on business process re-engineering.

The council's approach, he insists, is all about trying to identify generic solutions and apply them specifically rather than implementing lots of specific solutions simply so the council can tick boxes and reach an arbitrary target of 100% e-enablement. "If we can do things right for less in one service area, then we look to roll that out to other areas. That approach is slower to kick off but does then become very rapid." 

Norbury admits that organisational politics can initially hold people back from embracing change and accepting ideas originally pioneered by others.

"People are unsure about what we're going to do or feel they already run a tight ship," he acknowledges. "But once we get in and demonstrate to them what we can do, people sign up very quickly because they can see how they can benefit." After they have made that commitment, he adds, it then becomes very easy to introduce common corporate technologies, such as a document imaging system which will be used across the board within the council. 

Norbury thinks that Westminster's position near the leading edge means there are relatively few chances for the council to learn from other authorities. However, he cites the experience of implementing an Oracle customer relationship management solution where Westminster was able to participate in the LG45 Oracle user group. He also points out that no council leads in every area and that local authorities which may have received a relatively low rating in the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment rating may still be at the leading edge in a particular area and have much to teach others.  Westminster does host many visits by other councils seeking to learn and is interested in exploring options for the development of shared services that can be used by several councils. Norbury admits that resource constraints make it hard to do as much of this work as he would like. He hopes that some of the freedoms which may be accorded to Westminster as a result of its excellent assessment rating will allow it to spend more time on sharing its knowledge with others.

Case study:  Telford and Wrekin aims to streamline information holding   

Telford and Wrekin council's e-government vision centres on streamlining its information holdings to provide better services to citizens. Two projects, partly funded by Invest to Save Budget money, have piloted this vision with a multi-agency and multi-disciplinary team providing services to children and their families. 

The Wise project looked at the process of how multiple agencies work with the same client, while Aware focused on the exchange and use of data by different agencies and included the development of a common information system for all professionals involved in a case. "The Wise and Aware projects have shown we can use and share information appropriately while building in suitable security protocols," explains project manager David Tordoff. 

The best practice for integrated working which has emerged from the project is now being applied to other client groups, as well as informing the councils overall approach to managing its information holdings. With its use of the NHS Number as a unique identifier, the council has also become a "trailblazer" for the Identification Referral and Tracking project. 

Tordoff says the council did look for examples of best practice when it started the project, turning to other Invest to Save Budget projects and bodies such as local government IT managers group Socitm, the Improvement and Development Agency and the NHS, but "found few other good practice examples to take on board".  

Even now, he suggests, these bodies could do more to promote key best practice concepts. He also feels professional bodies in the main service areas need to put more effort into disseminating information about good professional practice in multidisciplinary situations.  

"Many people perceive the e-government bodies as coming at the subject of joined-up working and information sharing from a technology aspect," he points out. "We would suggest it is 90% about people and information and only 10% about technology." 

Telford and Wrekin is certainly taking its responsibilities to share what it has learnt seriously. "Although time is at a premium,  we are still making time to talk to others," says Tordoff. The council has spoken to professional and management groups in other agencies in the area, provided a full write-up of the project, continues to speak at many seminars and is making time to talk to bodies such as the Improvement and Development Agency.

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