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As councils rush to produce an initial statement on implementing electronic government, it is easy to lose sight of...
As councils rush to produce an initial statement on implementing electronic government, it is easy to lose sight of the real internet story.

At its heart is the promise of transparent local services, efficient online billing systems and controlled IT expenditure. But the reality is use of the web is limited.

Apart from email, councils' web presence tends to be passive - of the 400 district, borough, city and county councils surveyed by the Society of IT Managers last year, over one third still used their websites as only outline brochures.

E-government is being held back by three central problems:

- The cost of implementation

- An IT skills gap

- An immature internet industry.

The issue of reliability is central to the future of the internet. Complaints about slow response times and websites that crash add up to a substantial drain on management time.

This frustration is compounded by the shortage of IT professionals and the costs involved in recruiting them to work in-house. Research house IDC estimates there will be a shortfall of some 300,000 skilled IT workers by 2003, with the result that an IT manager can now command an average salary in excess of£70,000.

But the internet industry has failed to help itself. It has not communicated with councils in a language they understand.

These issues mean local government is missing out on the full potential of the web. But outsourcing offers an alternative.

A new generation of companies is re-defining the quality and cost of internet communication services. They are delivering services with the high levels of reliability essential to the success of e-government. At the same time, outsourcing avoids the prohibitive cast of building an in-house solution.

Research published by Morgan Stanley shows a typical company or council can save£67,000 a year by outsourcing its web-hosting needs.

The issues of cost, skill shortages and IT techno-babble have prevented councils from realising the full benefits of the internet, but as the internet industry begins to mature, local government-friendly solutions are emerging.

Adair Turner

Former director-general, Confederation of British Industry and a director of Netscalibur

At the Science Museum in London last month, Bracknell Forest announced it was committing more than£3.3m to working with BT Ignite Solutions to develop multi-application 'smart cards' which would facilitate the first 'whole community' pilot schemes.

Within a few months, several thousand residents will be using smart-card technology to borrow library books,

get discounted rates in town-centre

car parks, and register attendance at youth clubs.

The card will also become an 'e-purse', allowing the holder to credit small amounts of money onto the card to pay for specific council services, such as library fines. Residents who qualify for concessionary bus fares will be able to take their journey without anyone knowing they pay less or nothing at all, simply by presenting their card to the driver.

What is innovative about the scheme

is that the new cards are truly multi-functional, allowing the holder to access

a dozen or more services electronically, using the same piece of technology.

Bracknell Forest already has a loyalty card for residents, which 18,600 people have taken up since September 1999, with more than 100 retail outlets now giving card-holders discounts of up to 20%.

Several hundred sixth-form pupils studying in the Borough have already been using smart-card technology for six months or so, using the card to register their attendance and, for some, paying for their lunch-time meal.

This scheme is part of the national Connexions Pathfinder initiative and has captured the imagination of the young people taking part. They can reclaim the points they earn for offers such as free activities at our local sports and leisure centre.

Our new smart-card developments will be the basis for new areas of marketing, based on customer data and pricing. They will provide identification and authentication for residents to use potentially dozens of council services on-line, through a single point of entry. The smart-card infrastructure offers a platform for multi-agency partnership

and joined-up delivery.

The other ICT activities currently under way in Bracknell Forest include a pilot project with Novell enabling residents to interact with the Council via the internet on areas such as council tax, housing repairs and planning applications. The impact of Digital TV on our community is also being assessed. The Council's vision is to create an e-enabled borough providing 'multi-channel' access. The aim is not just to develop e-government but to create an e-community.

Cllr Paul Bettison (Con)

Leader, Bracknell Forest BC

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