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Doing IT for democracy ...
Doing IT for democracy

Watford bc will be one of the first places to have a directly elected mayor and we are pressing IT into doing its bit for democratic renewal.

'A champion for the community' was how one young resident described the role of the elected mayor. That is how the council sees IT, in particular its website - a champion for community access to the web.

Following a successful e-government strategy evaluation, officers and councillors are working to join up a number of initiatives to delivery greater community access to the web, provide a wider range of services and promote more opportunities for citizens and councillors to interact online.

The council has formed a partnership with local educational and community interests to expand access to the internet. With funding from the New Opportunities Fund, the partnership is putting computers in community centres, sheltered housing and schools for public access.

Seven new area committees will take democracy into neighbourhoods. These will be supported by locality managers who will act as a focus for council services in each area. In turn they will provide links to the full range of council systems.

Better access would be of little value without improved content and interactivity, so we are expanding links to key community services' sites and providing online payment facilities for council and utility bills.

To promote greater interaction one of the first changes to our web site will be the launch of our Democracy Zone. This will provide a one-stop information service, incorporating interactive and informative pages including chat rooms.

Leader Vince Muspratt (Lab) is optimistic about the changes: 'These are not revolutionary changes or initiatives. Many big authorities have done similar or even more, but for a small council we feel we are trying. For me as the politician leading the change, it is the underpinning culture that is revolutionary - community-led, customer-focused, inclusive and accessible IT working to support front-line services deliver in ways meaningful to local people.

Sharon Burd

Corporate director, finance and resources, Watford BC

There are lots of figures, but do they add up?

Any analysis of implementing e-government statements shows how poorly constructed they are, and that they are an unreliable basis for government decision-taking.

For example, of the 169 statements surveyed by Kable and BT - excluding those who made no cost estimate - a staggering two-thirds showed precisely the same

e-government funding requirement in each of the three financial years from 2002-5.

In addition, if you compare similar-sized London boroughs the extra spending required for the council at the top of the list is 100 times more than that of the council at the bottom of the list. In unitary authorities the multiple is 83 times, in metropolitans 49, in districts 12 and in counties 10.

Common sense and the sheer scale of the multiples suggests a large proportion ofcouncils did not give their statements the serious commitment and thought they deserved.

Considering the estimated additional£1.78bn cost of the statements in England specifically excludes current council e-spending - variously estimated at being around£1bn annually - this means there are real doubts about the reliability of the statements in terms of government planning.

How then is the government to assess the future funding requirements of e-government?

Perhaps they should use evidence from contracted

e-government regional business centres covering customer access and other e-functions. The existing half-dozen or so of these suggest revenue savings of up to 20% can be delivered annually and the capital cost of system change and new buildings averages about£10m per centre. The revenue savings come principally from re-engineering back office functions. Of course, the regional business centre approach can, by definition, only be successful for a minority of councils.

The issue with this model is that each of these business centres is designed to provide services to more than one council and it is therefore difficult to extrapolate the numbers nationally. However, making the assumption that 50 similar regional centres could cover the whole of England, the total capital cost of e-government would be closer to£500m, with the potential for this to be funded, in part, by continuing revenue savings.

Tailoring e-services to the real needs of citizens will require an unswerving commitment to delivering real improvements. It will also require a mixed economy of service provision, the recognition that citizens tend not to respect council boundaries and that, in the majority of cases, a locally-based contact centre earns few votes.

Ian Keys

Director, Transforming Services Programme,

New Local Government Network

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