Critical time for local e-services

With the deadlines for local authorities to put their services online by 2005 drawing closer, it is time to review progress and...

With the deadlines for local authorities to put their services online by 2005 drawing closer, it is time to review progress and determine whether the targets will be met.

Widely viewed as ambitious targets when they were first set, it seems that a combination of drive and purpose from within local authority IT departments combined with political pressure and some extra funding from Whitehall, have left the project broadly on course.

In the past four years a great deal of investment in IT has been made in local government to make services available over the internet. This year alone, IT spending by local authorities is set to rise 25% to almost £2.5bn this year according to a survey by public sector IT managers' group Socitm.

A second Socitm survey, which looked at local authority websites, showed both how far local authorities have come and how far they still have to travel. It highlighted a general improvement, with 33% of councils showing progress in the course of last year. But it also showed how few authorities had genuinely transactional sites - just 23, which means that more than 400 authorities have yet to meet a key e-government target.

Much of the effort has, so far, been devoted to "front-office" accessibility to local services, but there is also an increasing take-up of enterprise applications such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems within local authorities.

With the public sector producing some of the most challenging development work in IT, it is easy to see why ambitious IT professionals have been keen to find roles in the sector. But if progress is to be maintained, local authority IT organisations need some certainty over future funding and their relationships with the government. The departure of Andrew Pinder, the e-envoy, who is due to leave his post in the middle of 2004, potentially leaves a vacuum between Whitehall and local authorities.

The e-envoy's role is being transformed into that of a central government chief information officer. This raises two key questions: who will take charge of ensuring councils meet the 2005 targets? And who will drive co-operation between central and local government?

This is a critical juncture in the delivery of local services electronically. Much good work has been done to date. There is much goodwill to see the process through, to meet the targets set out in 2000 and go beyond them. It needs strong support, both financially and politically, to see the process through to a successful conclusion.

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