Take on town hall ostriches

Delivering e-government services is not enough. We must change council chiefs' attitudes

Delivering e-government services is not enough. We must change council chiefs' attitudes

What's e-government all about? Judging by IT media reports, one could easily be mistaken and think it is merely about whether local authorities will meet the 2005 target for getting their services online.

In my opinion, the e-government debate has been remarkably short-sighted, nearly always taken from the viewpoint of IT managers in the private sector and with the same old, tired themes surfacing continuously.

As the Liberal Democrat spokesman on local government matters, I have my own take on what is needed to make

e-government a success. It is not technology, a lack of funds or unrealistic deadlines. It needs a change of mindsets, not for IT managers, but of the people who head local government - the chief executives, senior management and elected members of the councils.

A recent survey from the Society of IT Management, the local authority IT managers' organisation, revealed that senior IT staff in local authorities believe that fewer than half (42%) of council chief executives have a good understanding of e-government.

That is a disheartening figure. Having worked alongside local government, I too believe that council chief executives and senior management have scant appreciation for "e" initiatives. This is one of the biggest hurdles holding back e-government today.

Where does this obstructive lack of understanding of e-government come from? It boils down to a simple reality. Few local authority chief executives have grasped the two most fundamental and compelling benefits of IT and ultimately, the whole point of e-government: revolutionising the delivery of council services and bringing government closer to its citizens.

The following staggering assertion by a London borough chief executive to a national newspaper says it all: "Is it really in our interest, to put loads of information up for free, as if we were Guardian Online?"

My point is that if the very people who are given the task of providing the vital leadership for executing the requisite changes for e-government have not grasped its core benefits, then what hope is there?

The root of the problem can be attributed to local government's deep-seated prejudice against IT. In local government, there is this enduring view that IT professionals are huddled away in their laboratory of strange clicking noises and are isolated, impenetrable misfits. This is definitely an IT image problem that needs to be altered.

Town hall chief executives' lack of understanding for e-government can also be ascribed to the belief that e-government is solely about the application of technology and that only the IT department with its technical know-how and intellect can make it work. Sadly, IT is still treated as some back room, occult operation that no one else can decipher.

It is clear that the unremitting, seemingly immutable "IT versus non-IT" divide in local government persists and needs to be overcome. The question is, how?

In short, progress with e-government cannot be made unless local authority chief executives and councillors change their mindset by embracing IT, and more importantly, provide the essential leadership for it to succeed. If the e-government initiative is merely concerned with getting council services online, instead of tackling the irrefutable cultural issues getting in its way - such as senior management's resistance to e-government - then we are at a standstill.

We risk losing the most important benefit to putting government online: empowering democracy. The Government must show that not all public sector IT projects fail.

Let's make sure e-government is a success and find a way of getting local authority leaders to embrace and understand the value of e-government.

Adrian Sanders is the Liberal Democrat spokesman on local government and housing

Read more on Business applications