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E-GOVERNMENT SUPPLEMENT - READING BRITAIN'S MAP

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The DTLR's draft strategy for local e-government has been attacked for being too long and complicated, Nick Triggle...
The DTLR's draft strategy for local e-government has been attacked for being too long and complicated, Nick Triggle looks at the unreadable map

It was 10.30am on a Tuesday morning when civil servant Julian Bowrey stood up to make his speech to a packed hall of council officers.

The first words he uttered were a strongly-worded defence of the draft national strategy for local

e-government. Mr Bowrey, a member of the DTLR's local government modernisation team, had been incensed by the criticism the strategy had received since it was published a few weeks earlier at the beginning of April. Critics have argued it was published too late and was too complex.

But he told the Local Government Association public sector strategies conference that the 2005 deadline to get all services online could be met if councils, government and the private sector worked in partnership with each other.

His reaction at what was meant to be an advisory session gives some indication of the pressure everyone in government is under to deliver the vision set out by prime minister Tony Blair in spring 2000.

However, some people are not quite as convinced as Mr Bowrey that the deadline, and indeed, the entire scheme are realistic.

Bob Griffith, the national secretary of the Society of IT Management, says: 'Councils need guidance on what is meant by all services on-line and more needs to be done about asking citizens what they see as a priority.

It may be most councils get the main services such as education, refuse and social services on the internet

in time but others such as licensing could take much longer.

'There are also issues about social inclusion. Not everyone has access to the web and this could be the case for those who use council services the most.'

Mr Griffith feels councils may need more money - so far the government has only earmarked£350m for councils out of the£1bn pot.

He adds these issues are likely to be addressed in Socitm's response to the draft, which has to be submitted by 28 June.

The theme of accessibility to the internet is one which has been taken up before. Earlier this year, the consultants KPMG published a revealing report. It claimed that while two thirds of the British public wanted to access public services on-line, only 15% had actually done so in the last year.

Ken D'Rosario, a former civil servant who is now working as a business development officer for NextiraOne, believes the government should be investing more of its valueable time and resources into other

forms of service delivery, such as telephone or face-to-face.

Mr D'Rosario, who spent 20 years working for the government, says: 'I am not sure people will really use

e-government services. People like to interact by more personal means and some money could be put into improving them. It can sometimes take people who are not used to computers quite a while to access information they want so they could be put off.

'And I am not sure getting all the services on-line by the deadline is entirely realistic.'

The Local Government Association, which helped produce the strategy in conjunction with the DTLR, has not kept a record of how far along the road to

e-government councils are.

Association programme manager Nick Easton says: 'Councils are making good progress. However, it would seem sensible for them to focus on the shared priorities - key council services such as housing.'

But according to Government on the web II, a report published in April by the National Audit Office, only a quarter of services are currently on-line.

And this statistic was supported by Local e-government now, which was published at the same time by the Improvement& Development Agency.

The study, which examined how 10 different councils were doing in the drive to get online, revealed progress was 'mixed' with most councils making inroads but unsure where it was leading.

Even among the councils which are doing well, there are still doubts. Basingstoke & Deane BC, which has been working for the last couple of years on its

e-government strategy, is half way towards meeting the 2005 target.

But Dorcas Bunton, the council's deputy director of corporate resources, says: 'The 2005 deadline has given councils a good focus but I cannot say hand on heart whether we will get all the services online. I think there are internal problems with culture change. Most authorities struggle with change of this kind as it effects every service.

'Public accessibility to the internet is an issue but it is important to remember putting services on-line will also help to improve delivery of services by other means. For example, having information and services accessible will help councils when dealing with residents on the phone.'

She also acknowledges the strategy was a 'little late' but adds she could understand central government - which many claim is behind councils in its progress towards the 2005 deadline - wanted to see what had already been achieved.

Nonetheless, what is clear among those involved in

e-government is there is a tremendous amount of determination.

Martin Ferguson, an e-government adviser at the IDeA, says: 'Most authorities are going to achieve the target and for those who say the strategy is too little, too late, there has been a lot going on ahead of this. The most important thing now is making sure it is meaningful and accessible and this is where the work needs to be done. The one thing about the strategy is that it is limited in what it says about implementation.'

And James Hehir, Ipswich BC's chief executive and president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, says he finds the drive towards the

e-revolution 'invigorating'.

'It is a chance to make a real change in the way councils are doing things. I find it one of the most invigorating things we have done for years and I think most chief executives have realised this. At Ipswich we have put leisure and bus services and even our local plan on the web. I am an optimist and I think we are going to achieve it.'

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