Public, not managers, drive online agenda

As Socitm prepares for its annual conference, the president of the public sector IT directors group looks at the achievements of e-government and future challenges


As Socitm prepares for its annual conference, the president of the public sector IT directors group looks at the achievements of e-government and future challenges.

The e-government agenda, with its target of every service available online by 2005, has changed the way public sector organisations think about service delivery. It is no longer the business manager who directs what will happen, but the citizen.

With some 80% of public services being delivered by local councils, the 2005 e-government targets would require a sustained wave of activity and investment in local authority IT.

This has indeed happened: councils have spent some £2.5bn on e-government so far, supported in England by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's national strategy for local e-government, and some £675m of central government funding.

New channels, such as websites and contact centres, have been created or further developed to enhance customer access to services. There is also plenty of evidence to show that information provided by councils to businesses and the public is developing both in quantity and quality.

Early in 2004, we learned that there was to be a new set of e-government targets for us to meet.

Priority services and transformational outcomes (PSTOs) - 73 of them - were defined under 14 different areas for service improvement, including schools, community information, democratic renewal, local environment, e-procurement, libraries, sports and leisure, transport, and so on.

Although the specific nature of the PSTOs has been helpful in providing a focus for e-government efforts, many would argue that given their challenging nature they were imposed too late in the programme, after many authorities had already made decisions about their e-government priorities.

In terms of the 14 different outcome areas for the PSTOs, the most successful are supporting new ways of working, accessibility of services, and high take-up of web-based transactional services.

And we must not overlook the issue of take-up. E-government investments will only be realised, and citizen benefits gained, if people actually use the e-services on offer.

And, of course, in order to achieve efficiencies councils will need to persuade citizens and businesses to switch from traditional and more expensive methods of interaction - such as in person or by letter - to cheaper methods such as phoning or "self-servicing" through websites.

Research from the eCitizen National Project suggests that a large proportion of the public is keen to do this, but are simply not aware that councils offer online services.

The role of IT managers has also changed. The technology is no longer the driver but the enabler, and the strategic use of technologies is now one of the main tasks for the head of IT. But to do this effectively they need to understand the business in its entirety and how it could be changed. They must also be aware of the requirements of the customer. There is an expectation that services from the private sector are available electronically, so why aren't those from the council?

Socitm believes e-government could be an important source of efficiency gains, and that with efficiency as a new driver, e-government programmes could be invigorated to achieve the promised, but as yet elusive, transformation in public services.

The new efficiency agenda developed as a result of the Gershon Review into public sector efficiency could force councils to embrace the more radical, transformational version of e-government that Socitm has called "e2government", particularly as Whitehall has started to express its disappointment at councils' efficiency performance thus far.

By delivering benefits to the customer through lower-cost channels there can also be real efficiency gains.

The Socitm national conference, which takes place in Brighton on 16-18 October, will touch on many of the issues raised in this article.

Subtitled Delivering Real Benefits for Customers, the event takes place at a time when central funding for local e-government is coming to an end, and the case for continuing investment in IT will need to be made more strongly than ever.

Angela Waite is head of ICT at Canterbury City Council and president of the Society of IT Management

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