It has promised a ‘route map to the e-revolution’ no less, where services will be “radically re-engineered” for the citizen. Such feverish excitement about this brave new world has yet to reach the man in the street, however.
In fact, the success stories in local government have largely been achieved by a traditional route: play along with Whitehall to get the cash and then get on with meeting local priorities.
And there have been some very impressive projects from those who have embraced the idea of electronic services. Tameside in Manchester is the class swot, with initiatives deserving of the plaudits.
The best ideas have come from councils which have retained absolute focus on local needs. Progressive councils in rural areas have understood that IT can provide communications that have been lost with the closure of local bus routes, train lines and post offices. Good examples are Cornwall’s citizens’ smartcard and Lincolnshire’s NetLinc online education network.
Regional assemblies and metropolitan councils have equally been ahead of central government. Liverpool City Council’s £6m customer relationship management system and the Greater London Authority’s transport smartcard are national leaders rather than followers.
The government has very sensibly tried to harness the best and brightest ideas to be used as models by all. The Pathfinder projects are universally interesting, even if their success has yet to be proved.
Strong partnerships between authorities is undoubtedly speeding up the pace of change. But, on the other hand, there is plenty of evidence of councils paying lip service to 2005.
Flashing the cash
Just four offer transactional websites. Ask why and you get a range of answers, but it’s no surprise that the biggest problem is money.
The government has offered £200,000 to councils for e-government work and Pathfinders have been given short-term grants. However, the online services budget has to compete with other priorities at a time when there is political pressure to keep spending down.
Financial demands are all the more irritating when the government is piling on the pressure to hit deadlines, of which the one decreeing that all e-government services are to be delivered by 2005 has received the greatest publicity, and spewing forth a never ending stream of ‘radical initiatives’.
The fact that most councils will probably meet the minimum requirements for service delivery is hardly the point, according to critics.
A deadline is both an arbitrary limitation forcing councils to rush projects that may have been genuinely valuable, and a distraction from the provision of services for which there actually is local demand.
That is the argument both for and against a strong central control. Electronic delivery of services may not be high on people’s agenda today – e-voting may have made a slow start – but their time will come, and the UK cannot afford to have a multi-speed approach to implementation.
The central versus local agenda will be an argument as long as we have a democracy. It should not be forgotten, however, that centralised control has brought some big benefits and offers bigger opportunities.
The government’s decision to use the combined weight of all local authority spending as a powerful negotiating tool with suppliers has had short-term success in the shape of a licensing deal with Microsoft, and offers longer-term prospects in convincing telcos to create a nationwide broadband infrastructure.
Central government is a help in clearing obstacles to local progress and a hindrance where it cannot resist control freakery.
In reality some councils have found that the loss of control to the centre is nothing compared with the loss of control to outsourcers.
Tendering out e-government may have seemed like an easy option. But as so often happens, the notion that outsourcers can be left to get on with it and guarantee results proved an illusion.
AccountancyAge.com’s sister publication Computing has frequently reported on IT disasters where projects have had to be brought back in-house at huge cost. Without strong management and clear objectives, outsourcing can only be good news for the lawyers.
Good management of electronic government projects will improve with experience, but there are some factors beyond the control of a local authority.
E-government will not be uniformly successful because the country is not uniform, and the biggest of all IT issues for many regions is location, location, location.
A few areas have high broadband connectivity, a healthy pool of IT skills and widespread access to computers, but many do not. In the highly connected world, a digital divide is a serious threat to social cohesion.