Councils must ensure that in the rush to comply with e-government standards they do not lose sight of the needs of the users they are providing the service for.
The information management and technology drive for local authorities continues unabated. The requirement to address the e-government target of 100% of services available electronically by the end of 2005 is still at the fore.
Local e-government minister Phil Pope, speaking at the Socitm spring conference held at the end of last month, reported that only 13 authorities still provided cause for concern and that they were being supported. The conference also debated the 23 projects that comprise the National Projects programme. Such projects included customer relationship management (CRM), smartcards, digital TV and mobile technologies, all of which will need to be addressed by local authorities in the very near future.
In parallel to this we have the compliance agenda. Top of the list is the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the revised guidance on the Data Protection Act 1998, which after its misinterpretation in the Soham tragedy will be very high on the agenda for those dealing with personal care.
Underpinning the way councils treat citizens is a requirement for accurate records and the ability to bring information together to provide a holistic view of citizens' needs. In addressing both the e-government and compliance agendas there will be a need for CRM, secure online self-service and a comprehensive records management strategy.
Of these challenges, CRM is the most compelling as it promises to change the way local government deals with the public. Local authorities will need to address the service aspects of relationships with local residents, who may not always feel like "customers" and may resent being treated in an inappropriate or patronising way. Their objective is usually to be able to resolve a query or issue with their local service as quickly as possible.
There are a number of ways of addressing this: some councils are setting up a central facility for handling calls, others have a number of different departments with specific responsibilities where people need to know the correct department to contact - which may not always be obvious. Many citizens prefer to call into an office in person, and then need the people who deal with them to be able to access relevant information rapidly. Many people do not like automated telephone services, so these should be used with caution.
Addressing the internal processes of the local council and ensuring that any solution supports the way it already functions, improves efficiency and helps council staff work more effectively is better than simply providing a common view of the citizen and their interactions with the council.
Although many processes may be improved by comparison with best practice demonstrated in the National Projects, there needs to be a gradual approach if the targets, and thus benefits for the public, are to be achieved.
Whatever approach is taken, local authorities must do it with regard to the multiple requirements of the information management and technology agenda. Butler Group believes that as local authorities move to the 2005 e-government deadline, CRM systems can help in addressing the Data Protection Act and the adoption of the BS 7799 information security standard. However, there must be a strategy in the way these systems are deployed, otherwise the juggling of priorities and investments, both financial as well as in implementation and training, could challenge Solomon's wisdom.
Teresa Jones is a senior research analyst at Butler Group. This article was written in conjunction with Mike Davis, a senior research analyst at Butler Group