Councils rise to e-government challenge

There is cautious optimism that councils will meet the 2005 deadline.

There is cautious optimism that councils will meet the 2005 deadline.

Despite reports that councils are struggling to meet the 2005 deadline for getting services online, recent research offers cautious grounds for optimism.

Labour's e-government agenda suffered a setback last year when a survey by the Society of IT Management revealed that more than half of local authorities were not expecting to meet the 2005 target for putting services online. This came just two and half years after Tony Blair had taken the bold move of bringing the e-government deadline forward from 2008 to 2005.

Socitm's IT Trends in Local Government 2002/3 report, published last December, painted a less than rosy picture, with 15% of councils not even trying to meet the 2005 deadline at all.

Whitehall says councils' most recent Implementing Electronic Government statements, which enable them to receive a share of e-government funding, suggest that the vast majority are on target for 2005. There has, however, been speculation that the statements are "aspirational".

But early findings of research by Socitm and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show real progress is being made in a number of areas of e-government, such as council tax transactions and call centres.

Socitm official John Serle said, "The Socitm/CIPFA research has made me conclude that it is possible for councils to meet the 2005 target. My view is that, even with the time that is left, local authorities - if they resource it and manage it properly - could deliver what the government wants."

The variety of e-government products now offered by the IT industry is one of Serle's main causes for optimism. He said, "There are IT solutions emerging from both major and smaller suppliers offering a whole range of approaches and cost levels to local government."

Someone else who believes that councils are moving in the right direction is Martin Ferguson, assistant director of e-government at the Improvement and Development Agency. The Local E-Government Now 2003 report, produced by the agency and Socitm, praised e-government services in transport, community regeneration and raising educational standards.

Cumbria County Council, for example, won praise for its use of computers and interactive whiteboards in schools and Liverpool City Council's deployment of sensing technologies in the homes of vulnerable people was also cited as a trailblazing project.

One local government IT manager, who asked not to be named, said, "The targets are there and they are there to be reached. There is still time to do it. From what I can see, most councils are getting up there."

But other experts are more sceptical. Ian Kearns, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, predicted that more than half of councils would miss the 2005 target. He said the reasons for this range from lack of money to cultural barriers and scepticism about the value of the e-government process.

Councils make e-government work       

Creating safer communities 

Argyll and Bute Council: The Three Islands Partnership uses IT and videoconferencing facilities to bring all public services together through a service point on each island 

Transforming the local environment 

Chesterfield Borough Council: All requests from the community regarding waste and waste management are dealt with through a new call centre and automatic connections to the relevant contractors 

Meeting local transport needs more effectively 

Brighton & Hove City Council: Global positioning technology is being used to ensure that Brighton & Hove's buses run on time and that travellers receive up-to-the minute information 

Promoting the economic vitality of localities 

Sunderland City Council: Electronic village halls across the city are the focus for learning and training schemes.

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