E-gov: Tangled up in the web

Although the warning afforded the Revenue was stern to say the least, and yes, it may well miss its target, only time will tell if it really does fail.

But whether it is central government agencies such as the Revenue or local government, the overlying message continues to be one of doubt and expected failure.

Take a recent survey of IT trends in local government, by the Society of IT Management. It examined whether or not local government was on target to meet its deadline to have all services online by 2005, with 50% delivered by the end of this year.

The overwhelming answer appears to be no. And what is continually emerging, the study pointed out, is that the majority of councils have neither the knowledge nor the resources to evaluate the potential of online services.

Lacking in skills
An overwhelming 90% of town hall ICT heads believe their departments lack the skills to meet the e-government agenda while perhaps, unsurprisingly but nonetheless relevantly, many also cited a lack of funding as a further key obstacle.

This is a worry for a government desperate to prove its new technology credentials right across the public sector. And it may be time to admit, argue some experts, that the attempt to create a seamless electronic trading environment is faced with overwhelming challenges likely to seem insurmountable within the next four years.

‘It is high time for the government to take a reality check,’ says chief executive of Albany, a software provider to local authorities, Adrian Stafford-Jones. ‘The 2005 deadline for getting local government online is unrealistic. The e-government target date is a noose around the neck of every local authority, representing a deadline that heralds sceptical whispers even within government circles.’

A harsh reality
He adds: ‘The harsh reality is that fewer than a third of local authorities in Britain are even using direct credit for paying rent allowances to private tenants – let alone being anywhere near full e-business adoption.’

Getting politicians to admit that their targets will not be reached would prove difficult but there are ways in which authorities can ease towards electronic communication at a pace that suits both internal processes and the speed with which the public is adopting new technology.

For example, exchanging documents and conducting financial transactions electronically provides the efficiency gains of increased speed and will help councils provide a better service at lower cost.

Putting theory into practice
And some authorities have already put the theory into practice. Colchester Borough Council, for example, has recently introduced new technology that enables it to dispatch documents via fax or email, depending on the preference of the receiving party/organisation. It may seem a small step for e-government, but such little incremental stages will help authorities witness the many benefits of e-business first hand, whilst the significant cost savings to be gained can only provide the compelling evidence that this is the right way forward.

Whilst online initiatives should be wholeheartedly encouraged within local authorities, let’s not ask them to run before they can walk.

There are solutions available today to replace selected areas of council operation enabling immediate benefits to be gained, without the need for wholesale changes.Stafford-Jones, adds: ‘Embracing such solutions will deliver early benefits, confidence in e-transactions and bring about the culture change needed for the next stage of development – small steps on the road to full e-government.’

Difficulty meeting targets
Many local councils will also find it hard to meet the targets for e-government because their procurement processes are too long-winded. According to Richard Broad, regional director for local government at Oracle, IT procurement rules are slowing down the modernisation of local services.

‘While many are on track with their e-government targets, the ones that have left it late may find it a struggle to purchase and install new equipment in time,’ he believes.Many councils are opting to upgrade their IT infrastructure in order to provide an integrated online service to their residents.

‘Local authorities are looking at systems that will support their future business rather than their legacy systems,’ explains Broad.

Councils such as Haringey in north London have opted to outsource their financial systems, hoping to shave between 3% and 6% off running costs.

These will then be ploughed back into online service delivery. ‘This is an important step to meeting our e-government targets,’ said Lisa Wills, project manager for Haringey Council.

On course to meet targets
But, despite the evidence to the contrary the government says it remains on course to meet its e-agenda, following the publication of the second annual report of UK Online last year.

However, amid the hubbub in the last few years over what electronic service can do for the public sector, doubts remain over the value of online services being delivered at all. Some question that despite the setting of targets and the enthusiastic words of ministers convincing the public to use the services will prove very hard.

‘The content has to be attractive to the public. There needs to be greater integration between different government departments, to provide a real sense of ‘joined-up government’,’ believes Ken D’ Rosario, public sector business development manager at consultants AeBS.

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