Technology is the answer to joined-up government, says the Improvement & Development Agency. And if not the answer, it certainly has a key role to play.
The agency is working on various national partnership projects with a strong technology element. But the provision of technology itself is not the whole answer - more important can be frameworks and guidelines for flexible local adaptation.
LASER has just received£12m from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and is finalising details for a pilot scheme involving around 90 trailblazer councils. Between them, these councils use over 40 different types of electoral register software from different suppliers.
'The project will create standards to allow these software suppliers to create modifications to their solutions so they can link together, to build towards a nationally accessible, locally managed network of registers,' says Nicola Wood, people information programme manager at IDeA.
'It is easy to say joined-up government is about technology, but if you start saying technology is the key, you get people trying to sell you big systems. There are lots of different technologies that can do a job, but what you do need are common technology standards.
'So with LASER, and with other IDeA projects such as the National Land Information Service (www.nlis.org.uk), standards are at the heart of it.'
Beyond councils and other public sector bodies working together, joining up can be achieved through the creation of a single, joined-up interface to give the public access to services.
Such is the thinking behind the wave of one-stop shops and call centres that have been steadily engulfing UK local government, and in September 2000 the Cabinet Office's Performance & Innovation Unit took the concept one step further by mooting an entire mixed economy of public services (www.cabinet-office.gov.uk/innovation/
A mixed economy means a key role not only for direct public/private partnerships, but for web-enabled intermediaries too - third parties who deliver or repackage online public services, often in combination with other services of their own.
Digital intermediaries, the argument runs, may be better placed than public sector bodies to reach a particular target audience, for example by being more widely available, more efficient or more innovative.
Examples of intermediaries could include the web sites of motoring organisations, which could offer online vehicle licence renewal or road tax applications. Or online portals for students offering loan applications, health advice, and careers information alongside their own services.
But whatever innovative new approaches are created to deliver joined-up services there remains a thorny legal issue to resolve - data sharing within and between public agencies.
It emerged recently that a group of pathfinder councils has obtained advice from a leading law firm and a QC that much of the e-government work they were carrying out could be at risk of legal challenge as there were no specific powers to share personal data between council departments. A project at Shepway DC to allow residents to register changes of address online a single time across all council services has been halted by the findings, and a letter sent on behalf of all the pathfinders to deputy prime minister John Prescott urging a change in the law.
Nabarro Nathanson, the law firm advising Shepway, says in its own submission to the government that 'the restrictions imposed by a strict interpretation of data protection law are widely perceived as a major obstacle to achieving the goal of joined-up public services.'
It concludes: 'The timeframe for actions to be taken by the Lord Chancellor's Department and others is critical. Many public sector bodies, but particularly local authorities, are moving forward imminently with significant IT and e-government projects. Unless relevant issues are resolved quickly many such projects are in danger of not realising their full potential and in certain cases of incurring significant costs.'
There are other potential pitfalls for using technology to join up government, not least the enduring problem of making countless different systems talk to each other in a meaningful way - the field known to technologists as systems integration.
'Joining up the technology is certainly more possible today, with new standards like Internet Protocol and XML, but the reality of doing it after 100 years of silo-based government is something different,' says James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at de Montfort University.
Ultimately, Prof Woudhuysen says, overcoming all the potential barriers to joined-up government will boil down to whether there is the political will to enforce a multi-agency approach. 'The will is there in the government, but the questions is whether it's among the population. There is scepticism about whether government can, and should, join up, and people worry about the intrusive aspects. They don't want too much government in their lives.'
Editor, E-government Bulletin