The government's push for the next phase of e-government targets is adding to the pressures already crippling local councils, says Simon Moores
For real evidence of the progress of electronic government in Britain there are times when you don’t have to look much further than your front door.
My local council, the Isle of Thanet (on what the locals call “Planet Thanet” at the eastern edge of the known universe) has, since I last checked, finally tranformed its website from a token informational mess into a useful source of information. You can make online payments and download forms - for the relatively low proportion of the local population that has access to the internet.
Whether local citizens actually visit the council website is another question - but if they do there’s no guarantee that the council will respond to any enquiries, electronic or otherwise.
Last month, according to the local paper, the Audit Commission produced a damning report, citing, “a catalogue of mistakes which included unsatisfactory customer services, a lack of investment in IT, unreliable computer systems and a failure to answer more than a quarter of a million telephone calls".
To me this sounds rather more like a progress report for central government - particularly the note in the report that highlights a systems crash in 2003 which resulted in the loss of a large amount of work.
But meanwhile, back in Whitehall, the cogs of government continue to grind relentlessly. Last week the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister released the draft proforma for the fourth round of the Implementing Electronic Government Statement exercise.
It is a little different to its predecessor: whereas in last year's IEG3 exercise, councils were asked to report on progress against the six-part model of the local e-organisation, in IEG4 they are required to self-assess their progress towards delivering each of the ODPM's priority service outcomes by April 2006.
Roughly translated this means that there is more statistical paperwork to add to the mountain of forms, and meanwhile, the ODPM has decided that everyone, including local councils at the edge of the known universe, could do better.
It has chosen to remind us all that it exists and is very important, and has launched an extensive research programme to assess councils' progress in e-government, how they are approaching the task and find out the particular barriers they face.
In a separate study, all local authorities will also be contacted shortly about a forthcoming "web audit" of activity related to environmental issues and services.
Back on Planet Thanet, the council’s chief executive, Richard Samuel, blames his own problems on the level of deprivation on the picturesque island. Some of this is a consequence of inner-London councils “outsourcing” many of their refugee problems to the far end of the M2 motorway.
With challenges like this already in the in-tray, to tackle e-delivery and worries about the future of public Wi-Fi might be asking too much of a council that is struggling to find the resources to cut the grass around the local tennis courts.
However, whether it has an “e” in front of it or not, efficient communication with the general public remains key to local government success and so I called Samuel’s office, introduced myself to his PA and said, “With some experience of
e-government, having been partly to blame for kicking off the entire agenda, I might be able to help. I’m only down the road.”
She politely took my details and explained that he was busy and that someone would call me back.
That was a week ago, so I guess you can add my name to the quarter of a million lost telephone calls, leaving me to believe that for many councils, the ODPM’s ambitious dreams of universal e-government efficiency at local level are at best wishful thinking or at worst evidence of putting the cart before an unwilling horse.
Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of e-government and information security.
For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit www.zentelligence.com