Prime minister promises continued investment in local government IT
Days before Tony Blair went to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen to dissolve parliament, the government launched a new strategy to transform the delivery of public service around IT. The announcement must have been music to the ears of public sector IT managers.
Just a week earlier, Chris Guest, president of council IT managers association Socitm, voiced his fears that local authority IT spending could dry up as the 2005 e-government deadline passed and as budgets were squeezed as a result of the government's efficiency review.
Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham Council in East London, was typical of many local authority IT directors when he insisted that Westminster and Whitehall should not give the impression that the job of e-government is already done.
As if answering this call, Blair said in the introduction to Connecting the UK: the Digital Strategy, 'While we can rightly celebrate progress, we cannot, and should not, think the job is done. We must harness the power of IT to modernise public services so they are as personalised, efficient and responsive as the most successful companies.'
With this came the promise that the Cabinet Office E-Government Unit and the new council of government chief information officers would create a 'vision of public service delivery transformed by modern technology and a strategy for achieving that vision'.
Blair said, 'The challenge for government is to ensure that we seize the opportunities offered by the widespread availability of high-speed networks and the growing acceptance of electronic services in people's daily lives.
'Some services enabled by modern technologies have had a profound impact that was not foreseen: the budget airline industry is now a social phenomenon reaching almost all parts of society, but would not have been possible without the internet. People will adopt new technologies when the value proposition to them as individuals and families is strong enough.
'We must be open and quick to seize the opportunities that present themselves. Rising to this challenge will be an important task for the e-government unit as it draws up a strategy for the use of ICT in transforming public service.'
But there is a difference between putting commercial and government services online. Retailers and airlines, for instance, want to attract the affluent customers, who are already likely to have access to the internet at work or at home.
For government services the opposite is true: key client groups for social services, for example, are the least likely to have web access.
For this reason, the document looked at ways of overcoming the 'digital divide,' encouraging the leasing of laptops to family homes through schools and making it easier for businesses to sell old PCs to all employees, not just those that already use IT on a regular basis.
While vision is one thing, local e-government minister Phil Hope offered some practical measures that could ensure IT spending is the beneficiary, rather than the victim, of spending cuts under the efficiency drive that all parties in the general election are promising.
Hope said the local authority spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, would in future perform a comprehensive performance assessment on councils that gives weight to effective use of IT to improve efficiency. 'Not only delivery and corporate management and leadership [will be examined], there will be criteria for use of resources, including IT. They will have to identify how they use IT,' he said.
Jos Creese, head of IT service at Hampshire County Council, welcomed the pledges. Having IT feature in the auditing of efficiency gains would help prevent financial departments from sidelining IT or even cutting IT budgets, he said, but warned, that delivering IT-enabled efficiency gains would be hard.