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Heralding an era's end ...
Heralding an era's end

Last month saw the release by the DTLR of the draft National strategy for local e-government. Launched as a consultation paper on the eve of the Queen Mother's funeral the publication slipped by almost unnoticed.

Yet the paper is important. It is generally recognised by politicians of all parties that there is only one way to make a step-change in the quality and responsiveness of public services without substantial additional public expenditure - e-government. The report provides the framework for a£2.5bn expenditure programme which has the potential to influence the lives of almost every citizen.

There is a public perception that

e-government is about councils having 'pretty' websites which cater for an affluent minority. Councillors often see it as expenditure on IT and administration, which are low priority and which attract few votes. The draft National Strategy seeks to dispel these misconceptions.

E-government has the potential to change the ways in which all parts of government interact with citizens and offers an opportunity to re-think how services can be delivered more efficiently.

The draft strategy provides a common vision, language and model that will enable councils to work co-operatively with each other and with other parts of the public and private sectors.

This report has attracted much attention as it should mean dramatically improved joined-up services and easier, faster and more convenient ways to vote. It also heralds a seismic change in the local government landscape.

As local government minister Nick Raynsford has stressed, successful implementation can only be achieved in partnership with the NHS, police, local communities, voluntary organisations and the private sector. Your input and help in shaping and delivering the National Strategy is vital.

John Thornton

Director of e-government, Improvement & Development Agency

Wolverhampton sees the benefit

Wolverhampton City Council spends£75m a year on housing and council tax benefit.

We look after approximately 35,000 'live' benefit claims, where people are receiving housing and/or council tax benefit.

Before CMG's decision to pull out of the market in May 1999, Wolverhampton was hosting a CMG system to process all of our housing benefit and council tax claims.

The company's decision left us with the choice of either buying the existing system from CMG and supporting it internally or purchasing a new housing benefits system.

As the existing system was a fairly aged in-house system, members agreed to purchase a new system.

In preparation for this we started a wish list of what the council needed from a new benefits system.

The main priority was functionality - we needed to be sure the product had been tried and tested, the company supplying the system had strong experience in implementation and support and that it could be customised to our specifications. The system also had to be low-risk.

Before the specifications had been finalised, the council did a substantial amount of research into the market and visited seven different suppliers to see their software. This shortlist was reduced to four and, in December 1999, Sx3 were selected.

The functionality of their product, First Benefits, and the experience they had of the market made us feel we could trust them to help us implement a new system.

After selection, work started almost immediately. Sx3 supplied us with a server and completed five data conversion tests between December 1999 and December 2000.

In addition - because the benefits system had to communicate with the creditor system, the council tax system, the debtors system and others - Sx3 had to write new interfaces to facilitate this communication.

But perhaps the most important part of the project was the training given to council staff. Many had to get used to using a PC and learn to navigate the new system.

With the system now in place, council departments are seeing a range of benefits, from increased efficiency to more accurate data.

The council has to claim the money paid out in benefits back from central government so they also have to be convinced the system is working properly and is delivering an improved service to residents.

An audit carried out shortly after implementation reveals the system would considerably improve the service received by local residents.

Sue Martin

Head of benefits, Wolverhampton City Council

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