Council IT directors battle skills shortages and Whitehall interference to hit targets

Many local authorities enthusiastically embraced the prime minister's e-government targets when they were set, but as the...

Many local authorities enthusiastically embraced the prime minister's e-government targets when they were set, but as the deadlines have grown nearer a series of problems have emerged, including Whitehall interference and skills shortfalls.

The issue of local decision-making and whether Whitehall is promoting appropriate projects was brought into sharp relief when the government announced its extra funding for e-services.

Local authority IT staff welcomed the extra money but were sceptical about the strings attached to it. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will hand over the money only if councils file satisfactory Implementing Electronic Government (IEG) progress reports, and a recent consultation document from the ODPM provoked fears that the goalposts were moving.

"Socitm's view is there has to be an element of local decision on most services," said Glyn Evans chairman of Socitm's information age government group.

"For example, a housing benefits service in inner city London may prioritise making payments quickly because, if it does not, people could get evicted. You accept you might have to live with the consequences of some incorrect calculation. However, in leafy Cheshire, that will not be the same issue and the need to pay people the right amount might be a priority."

Evans was hopeful that the ODPM would respond to Socitm's "vigorous" feedback on the consultation when it introduces mandatory priories for e-government later this year.

Funding, according to Evans, was not in general a problem, although the picture varied considerably depending on the size and location of authority.

The need for new skills has been a more difficult issue to resolve. Although council IT staff have proved adept at acquiring new technical skills, managerial skills have been more scarce, according to Evans.

"There are skills that we are having to learn as we go along, such as change management and business transformation - the public sector overall does not have a wealth of those skills. That is why we have sometimes looked to private help," he said.

More people visit council websites       

Socitm, the group representing local government IT managers, published research last month which showed that between 3.8 million and 5.7 million people visited local authority websites in December 2003.  

From a total of 467 council websites, 23 now offer transactional services, up from just 10 in 2003. A sample of website users showed that 83% would make council websites the first port of call if looking for similar council services.  

Some 33% of sites have improved in the past year, according to e-government and good practice criteria set out by Socitm.   Meanwhile, the number of technical errors has halved in the year since the last survey, according to SiteMorse tests.

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