Report shows local authorities must overcome barriers to joint working.
Local authorities across the UK are under increasing pressure to offer their services electronically, but implementing an IT infrastructure for people to pay their council tax online and complain when dustbins have not been collected is easier said than done.
Hence, last week the government allocated £26m to local councils to fund 82 e-government partnerships, with projects ranging from smartcards for libraries and transport to a shared database for abandoned cars. The funding, which is the second installment of £75m set aside for local and regional partnerships, aims to overcome some of the traditional barriers to joint working on e-government.
In a recent report, the New Local Government Network (NLGN) underlined the need for joint working but warned there are still significant hurdles. Partnerships can help resolve staff and skills shortages and can also help in getting government funding. An IT manager at a council in the North West said, "The fact the government is promoting partnerships gives us the opportunity to bid jointly for funding".
But worryingly, the NLGN's report uncovered some deeply ingrained attitudes and cultures across local government that stand in the way of joint working. The think tank warned that many councillors and local government officials have adopted a culture of "working for themselves" to prove local sovereignty and strength.
Councils, like other branches of government, often have long-standing rivalries and vested interests and egos can stand in the way of progress. Iain Roxburgh, a non-executive director of the NLGN and the report's author, warned that getting partnership projects off the ground is a major challenge for many local authorities. He said, "The biggest hurdle for many councils is getting the will, the authority and the political backing to make the first move."
But for some of the smaller councils, joint strategies could be the only option for delivering services electronically. Roxburgh said, "Partnership working is the only way into e-government for many smaller local authorities because of the costs of getting it off the ground."
He also warned that some larger councils should devote thought to how they work with other parts of the public sector. "For the larger councils there is the issue of being able able to join up with different agencies in their area, such as the health sector."
With both the health service and the criminal justice network in the midst of massive IT overhauls, metropolitan borough councils need to think about how they will share information.
The NLGN said local authorities should consider integrating customer relationship management with other agencies in their local area, which in turn would drive the integration of back-office functions. However, it is partnerships working across geographic and institutional boundaries that will be key.
The good news is that councils appear to be moving in the right direction. A survey published last year by Siemens Communications found that more than 70% of local authorities are working together to meet the 2005 target. Local government minister Chris Leslie recently said that every council in England is participating in at least one e-government project.
Brent Council, which took part in the government's original pathfinder scheme for fostering best practice in e-government, is one of the authorities at the forefront of joint working. The council is currently involved in a London-wide partnership called London Connects, which aims to encourage joint strategies between local authorities, the NHS, the police, the fire service and housing associations.
Bernard Diamant, director of corporate services at Brent Council, said, "We want to ensure Londoners can access public services from a single point of entry without having to work out which organisation they should be dealing with. A lot of work has already been done to share good practice on security and linking websites."
Joint working could also enable councils to sell e-government services to each other, such as CRM and consulting. A survey of senior councillors and chief executives by the Local Government Association at its annual conference last year showed that 66% of those questioned were considering selling services to other councils, while 82% said they would consider buying services from another local authority.
Over the years local government has earned a reputation as a technological backwater, with the private sector perceived as having the monopoly on cutting-edge IT. However, it appears the roles could be changing.
Councils have realised they need to look at new ways of working and using IT. Roxburgh said, "E-government targets are making authorities think more fundamentally about their services and how to re-engineer them around the customer."
But he warned that, as with any major partnership project, the different parties should be clear on what is expected from them at the outset. "It is vital the management of joint arrangements is sorted out at the start. This is not a quick marriage and divorce, it is a long-term relationship."
For Diamant, joint strategies are now part and parcel of e-government. "Partnership working is important because the e-government agenda is about joined-up service delivery and easy access," he said.
Some of the projects that will get a share of the £26m funding:
- An online job advertisement, job application and training system in Greater Manchester
- Joint procurement systems to help local businesses trade with the public sector in the North East
- A single interactive crime recording system to improve public safety in North London
- A publicly available interactive waste management system in South London to collate waste management data
- A joint interactive emergency incident management system in Kent
- An online planning system in the South East to link to the National Planning Portal
- An online information system to map information on roadworks carried out by local authorities and utilities in the East Midlands.