Socitm Insight's third annual survey of council websites revealed the green shoots of electronic local government are pushing through.
In a useful barometer of emerging interactivity, the survey found 10 councils - over four per cent of those who collect it - now offer online payment facilities for council tax, while 26 - over 13% of those with library services - offer online renewal of library books.
There is now approaching universal representation of councils on the web - 95% of those surveyed have websites - and 36% of councils were found to have improved their website presence in terms of content and interactivity since last year's Better connected survey.
Nevertheless, the general growth in sophistication of council web activity masks a significant geographical and functional disparity - or digital divide - in the development of online services.
For example, although half the surveyed councils responded to a test e-mail enquiry within a very commendable 72 hours, over one third did not reply at all.
Citizens in English shire districts are four times more likely to receive a council tax bill from a council without a website than those living in unitary council areas.
Three quarters of websites in Scotland and Wales fall outside the survey's top two categories of website development, while 75% of websites in Northern Ireland achieve only the most basic development rank.
In contrast, over half of London borough and county council websites are classified in the survey's second highest development category. On this evidence, London boroughs and English counties are stronger adopters of internet technology relative to most other UK councils. Indeed, they account for 13 of the top 20 websites identified in this year's survey.
One explanation for this can be found in the general resource disparity between small English districts, or sparsely-populated unitary councils and larger councils.
This particularly needs to be addressed in government funding initiatives for e-government. But it is the responsibility of leading councils to act as mentors for councils further down the e-government development ladder. The government's recent e-government pathfinder initiative is a useful first step in this process.
A final common factor in the most successful websites is strong political support for e-government. This is perhaps the real key to recognising the importance of ICT within modernisation.
It should be recognised that e-government is not just about putting local services online. Government initiatives on community leadership, best value and political reform create a powerful case for using council websites in a much wider and more interactive way than traditional communications media. In order to test councils' recognition of the wider modernisation scheme, this year's survey introduced a section on community leadership.
Overall, the results from the survey indicated the better council websites include local news items on home pages and offer direct feedback on matters of local consultation and service complaints. They make it easy for citizens to find out about the performance of their council and to contact their councillor by email. But, in general, the survey revealed there was room for improvement in all aspects of community leadership.
For example, one reviewer surveying a particular Scottish council's website during the week of the christening of Madonna's baby and her subsequent wedding in the local area could find no mention of it.
Since the survey was carried out, local government has had to deal with a far more serious issue than a celebrity wedding. The foot-and-mouth disaster is sadly an opportunity for councils to be a source of valuable up-to-date information for the farming and tourist communities.
How many councils have grasped this opportunity? A survey of sites in Devon in early March indicated only half. In general, the classification system for the Better connected survey assumes a four-stage evolutionary process for the development of websites - promotional, content, content-plus and transactional.
This year's survey found 36% of council websites are classed as promotional -down by 13% on last year's survey. Such sites provide basic promotional information about the council, typically concentrating on tourism and economic development, with little scope for interaction. Encouragingly, even basic sites appear to be moving towards the more consistent use of '.gov.uk' web addresses.
This indicates that websites are being increasingly recognised as an established mediums for communication within local government.
In an increase of 11% on last year's survey, 41% of council websites are now classified as content sites. These sites provide useful content and encourage some interaction such as email and feedback forms.
Some innovative examples of content on such sites include Swale - www.swale.gov.uk
- which has an external funding section designed to help raise awareness within the community, and charitable and voluntary groups in particular, about how they can obtain grants from the council and other bodies, and North Wiltshire DC - www.northwilts.gov.uk-which has a photo gallery for lost and stray dogs.
Just under a fifth of council websites are now classified as content-plus sites. These sites provide very useful content and offer some examples of more advanced on-line self-service features.
A leading example of a content-plus site is the London Borough of Brent - www.brent.gov.uk- which makes use of video and webcams, features a report tracking system for the new decision-making arrangements and a community information facility called BRAIN. The website even offers database-driven maps showing council tax band values, refuse collection days, councillor information, as well as the location of local facilities such as primary schools, in relation to any address in the borough.
Many of the content-plus sites are at the cutting edge of local government online and already seem to be in a good position to deliver 100% of services electronically by 2005.
However, this year's survey marked a watershed in comparison to previous years by finding the first council website in the top classification of transactional. On the Tameside MBC website - www.tameside.gov.uk- citizens can not only pay their council tax and business rates via a secure online facility, but also check the balance on their accounts.
The same facilities also exist for paying poll tax, housing rent, business rates, mortgages, car park fines or general debts - where people have a debtor account number - and for purchasing an increasing range of goods or services including scaffolding permits. Such online payment facilities are commonplace in the private sector and it is clear from the Tameside example that councils are beginning to follow suit.
However, in order for online government to be truly effective, there is a need to join-up council services with those in the wider public sector. This year's survey also included a section on joined-up government. In this regard, only 46% of councils were found to have offered web links to neighbouring councils, while only 20% have links to the local police service for their area.
Most disappointingly, only eight councils were found to offer linked web facilities based on life episodes - such as moving house or having a baby - while the facility to search for service information by postcode was restricted to around 5% of councils.
Clearly, improvements are needed in the area of joined-up government for the information age and perhaps the recent launch of the government's UK Online citizen portal - www.ukonline.gov.uk- is a useful first step in this process. One further feature that appeared considerably improved in this year's survey related to the general accessibility of council websites.
Social inclusion has long been a pillar of policy development in the public sector and more and more councils are recognising the need to make their websites accessible to all, including those with visual impairment.
Indeed, there are now well over a dozen council websites that pass the Worldwide Web Consortium Web Accessibility Initiative criteria as identified in the Bobby test - www.cast.org/bobby.
Nevertheless, the survey found there was still considerable room for improvement in terms of the provision of frames-free versions of websites and greater use of text-based site maps.
Overall, the local government family can be pleased with its progress in being better connected in 2001. But the government's calculated positioning of e-government alongside best value, community leadership and political reform in the local modernisation agenda demands no let up in effort and will doubtless make Better Connected 2002? similarly essential reading.
-Better Connected 2001? is published by Socitm. It is free to those who subscribe to Socitm Insight (formerly MAPIT) and£125 per copy for those who do not. Contact www.socitm.gov.ukor 01604 674800 for details.
- Dr Peter Blair, partner, Public sector strategies, member of Socitm project team for Better Connected 2001?