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The latest IDeA/Socitm annual review of e-government has many encouraging stories, but more has to be done, says Ma...
The latest IDeA/Socitm annual review of e-government has many encouraging stories, but more has to be done, says Martin Ferguson

We talk about modernising local government by making councils more accessible, responsive, cost effective, accountable and inclusive - and we invest in initiatives to improve services and democracy electronically. As we reach the halfway mark in the journey to the 2005

e-government target, what is the experience of citizens and businesses?

The news is encouraging. While the greater portion of local e-government activity is going into the development of the infrastructure to handle customer contact more efficiently - call centres, websites, one-stop shops and so on - many councils are exploiting technology to improve services, in areas such as social care, the environment, transport and education. In many cases, these initiatives are having a life-changing effect on citizens.

Our third annual report, Local e-government now, 2003 - sustaining the momentum, put together with the Society of IT Management, looks at how the lives and businesses of people are being changed for the better as a result of e-government. The report identifies over 30 examples of leading-edge practice from across the UK, measured against the eight shared priority outcomes agreed by central government and the LGA:

--Raising standards across our schools

--Improving the quality of life of older people and of

children, young people and families at risk

--Promoting healthier communities

--Creating safer and stronger communities

--Transforming our local environment

--Meeting local transport needs more effectively

-- Promoting the economic vitality of localities.

In Northampton, for example, the county and borough councils, together with the NHS and The Alzheimer's Society and are finding new supportive and non-intrusive technologies that can support people with dementia, allowing them to live independently as long as possible, and pro viding relief and peace of mind to their carers.

In Brighton & Hove, satellite technology has been deployed to allow the city council and the bus company track actual movements of buses - with real time information relayed to displays in bus shelters around the city. This has improved the scheduling and running of the buses, but it is also having the unexpected benefit of preventing people from waiting at deserted bus stops late at night, not knowing when their bus is going to arrive.

Elsewhere, community-managed 'electronic village halls' in isolated parts of Sunderland have provided new opportunities for learning, training and social interaction. Critically, the halls have been able to provide both basic skills and more formal, specialised training. The council has worked with local employers to develop the strategy, ensuring the training meets their skills requirements.

And in Derwentside, the health service is making use of the district council's broadband network, and is sustaining diagnostic and outpatient services in the more popular rural community health centres, services which might otherwise have been transferred to the larger hospital in Durham.

These innovations are encouraging and inspiring, and they demonstrate tangible delivery on the promise of e-government. But if there is a down side, it is the fact that these projects are too often the result of entrepreneurial individuals acting to improve the services they run, not as integral parts of the plans set out in the implementing e-government statements. More often than not, these innovations are made possible by short-term, project-based funding, which limits the extent to which they can be sustained or rolled out to other councils.

There is a need to bridge the gap between these innovations and corporate strategies and budgets, and for councils to explore systematically the benefits which e-government can have in meeting their communities' priorities.

In seeking these benefits, councils need to take steps not only to buil d capacity for e-government within their organisations but also in the community. This is not solely a matter of developing project management and entrepreneurial skills internally, or training citizens how to use the internet, though these are important. More challengingly, councils need to lead in the development of new, e-enabled public spheres for participation in decision making and service delivery. As part of this, councils need to take a lead in guiding, encouraging and supporting community groups to take an active role in shaping services and managing their communities.

Quantifying the benefits brought by e-government can be difficult. It is not easy to separate the impact of technology on services from the impact of the many other measures being put in place alongside them. But this does not mean the benefits are not there. The councils featured in this report have often gone to great lengths to capture the benefits of their projects - including unexpected ones. These benefits, which are within the grasp of all councils, have been measured in more satisfied service users, in staff who find their jobs more satisfying and more challenging, and in citizens and businesses whose lives have been changed for the better. They have also been measured in communities that feel included, listened to and re-enfranchised.

Martin Ferguson

Assistant director, IDeA

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