Become a ratepayer in Lewisham and you no longer have to trek to the town hall to pay your council tax. You can sit in the comfort of your own home, pick up the phone, contact the council’s call centre and undertake any number of transactions with the staff there.
Lewisham’s revenue and benefits services have successfully been centralised under this structure, but such development does not stop there.
Following government policy that all public sector bodies should be providing their services online by 2005, Lewisham plans to make revenue and benefits the first areas the council offers access to via the web. The plans are well advanced and private sector partners are being sought. The council hopes online services will launch in spring next year.
But Lewisham is far more advanced than many other local authorities.
It has some of the most advanced plans for e-government, and yet it will not actually offer a single transaction service online for another 12 months.
Others are well behind. Speak to some commentators and they’ll tell you that some have not even started planning.
Such revelations bring into the doubt the government’s stated policy aim of having all possible government services online by 2005 – a date brought forward from 2008.
Clive Maxwell, strategic adviser at Lewisham, says his council is ‘well ahead of the game’ leaving many councils well behind.
But the council’s situation goes some way to illustrate the rising concerns about the state of preparations in local and central government to meet the targets. What’s the problem? Why in the information age, and on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, do local authorities appear to be lagging?
A recent study by the consultancy Barony concludes a ‘major barrier’ to development activity is the level of funding. Historic under-resourcing means work to bring local authorities up to speed would have to be extensive and costly. Barony estimates #900m additional funding per year, or #2.7bn over three years to get infra-structures in place to provide full services.
The scale of the task is further illustrated when it is considered that private sector spending on technology has risen to 4-5% of gross budgets while local authorities currently only spend around 1-2%.
The government remains bullish about the targets, though vague about the potential costs.
A spokesman for e-envoy Alex Allan says: ‘Quite a few figures have been bandied about and they vary so much it’s difficult to tell which ones have the most credibility. More services are going online all the time. We are confident in the 2005 target for bringing government services online.’
Where money is concerned, most involved in pushing e-government forward are awaiting the publication in July of the 2000 spending review.
Heather Rabbatts, former chief executive at Lambeth council and now heading Impower, a consultancy offering online services, believes costs may be much lower than expected, even if she has doubts about the timescale involved.
‘The targets are enormously stretching,’ she says. ‘Local government is a major player but there is a huge variety of public sector services and the ability to get all these online will be a challenge.’
As for the costs, Rabatts is certain competition between consultancies will bring the prices down and that many of the software applications will be simple and cheap. While most of Europe struggles with pilot projects, US agencies have 30 secure e-government services up and running.
Although the European Parliament passed an e-commerce directive which aims to foster the growth of electronic commerce by making it legally safer for users – the truth remains we are a long way away from being the leading country in which to trade electronically – the much publicised goal of Tony Blair.
One way the Prime Minister has attempted to claw back lost time on our US rivals has been to appoint a series of high profile ‘e-ministers’.
Patricia Hewitt, Alex Allan, Ian McCartney and Mo Mowlam have been appointed to steer the e-government through implementation. However many experts believe the increasing number of ministers will create more problems than it will solve.
‘The number of ministers in e-employment is becoming an increasingly tricky situation. It is becoming more difficult to understand who is responsible for what. You have Hewitt at the DTI, McCartney at the Cabinet Office with Mo Mowlam, when she is around.
‘The office structure at the public service end of the Cabinet Office is in a terrible mess and is largely baffling,’ says Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who leads the National Audit Office ‘government on the web’ reports.
In the e-government stakes, there are encouraging signs that e-envoy, Alex Allan, has got to grips with his role after what experts called ‘a shaky start’, in which he was believed to merely accept everything he was told from those around him.
‘Somebody at the Treasury needs to get a grip of the ever growing structure concerning e-issues. The e-envoy for example is great but has no clear roles,’ adds Dunleavy.
There are a number of projects in the Treasury pipeline such as the soon-to-be-launched Employment Services website which will give details of jobs online plus the soon to be released health advice from NHS Direct.
Current services include the Inland Revenue and Custom’s sites which allow taxpayers to register for online self-assessment and VAT returns.
‘The Revenue website is a good example of an agency site, which has rapidly improved in recent times. However only 1.5% of the taxpaying population uses the electronic method – frightening when you think the Revenue employs 10,000 people to transfer paper-based returns into electronic form,’ adds Dunleavy.
It is understood the Benefits Agency has a long way to go before it is in a position to meet the government’s target.
Just 200 out of 68,000 staff have direct access to their website, which means if the public rings up with an online enquiry, most employees are not able to help. But it would seem before agencies are in a position to meet deadlines, they need some clear guidance from the top.
COUNTDOWN TO E-GOVERNMENT
The e-envoy is keen to take his strategy on e-government and has released a timetable of events for this year.
May: Completion of the Cabinet Office’s Central IT Unit study of major IT projects.
July: Publication of the outcome of the 2000 spending review – a period in which local authorities will learn if they are to receive more funding for IT projects. E-envoy Alex Allan will combine with Andrew Smith, chief secretary of the Treasury, and e-minister Ian McCartney in a cross-cutting review to decide whether money is available.
July: New ideas on electronic delivery of government services to be published in the Performance and Innovation Unit report.
October: E-business strategies for government to be submitted to the e-envoy.
December: E-envoy to make first progress report to ministers.
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