Features: January 7th, 2003

National Strategy For Local e-Government

By Babak Khakpour, eGov monitor

This article was first published in eGov Monitor Weekly <http://www.egovmonitor.com/newsletter/signup.asp>

Jim Haslem, President of the Society of IT Management and Head of Information Systems at the London Borough of Bromley gives his take on the National Strategy for local eGovernment and fundamental issues for implementing the plan.

eGov monitory: What are your criticisms and compliments of the national strategy for local eGovernment? Previously you’ve expressed that issues such as Community and Sustainability were lacking in the draft version.

Jim Haslem: Yes, and I also made the comments at the SOCITM conference about the disparity between local government funding allocations and other sectors, which remains an issue that we’re not going to solve in the short term.

However, I think the ODPM should actually be congratulated for distilling what is an enormous agenda into something that is both meaningful to business managers and the partners of local government, whilst also focusing on specific technology priorities. It maps the priorities very effectively in terms of the future, particularly in areas such as democracy and economic vitality. I think that’s really leading-edge stuff, and they’ve done it in a way which hopefully reinforces the importance of e-government to delivering the major strategic challenges facing local government. That’s massively beneficial and should stand the test of time.

I think that if I had disappointments, it is that inevitably as you get down into detail you’re left wanting. I think the ODPM website certainly needs a lot more effort and energy put into it. I think that now they need to communicate very clearly and very quickly what’s going to be happening and where are the areas that are going to be developed on the website over the next few months, because local authorities are making operational decisions and they can’t wait.

If the national strategy is going to make a contribution, its important local authorities know in which areas decisions are going to be made at a national level and when they are going to be made; when projects are going to be starting, when products and standards are going to be delivered, so that local authorities can build that into their own planning processes. At the moment I think there is a lot more information needed on the website to indicate the time-scales for all the detailed things to happen.

Likewise, on the national projects there really needs to be much greater clarity around what they are going to deliver, when they are going to delivered, and what contribution those deliverables are going to make to individual local authorities. I appreciate the balancing act that the ODPM have on this, they’ve got an enormous task; they’ve just gone through 400 or so IEGs while juggling all the national projects but nonetheless, if its going to have the contribution and impact it needs to have, I think on the dissemination side it really needs to step up a gear or two.

EGM: Would you say that they need to get at least half-a-step ahead than they are now?

JH: Yes, definitely. I think that other areas I’m still concerned about personally, and it may be that I’m being too idealistic, but I still feel very concerned about the extent to which other central government departments are establishing standards and processes, which are being done seemingly unilaterally. And I’m particularly concerned about education and health; in my view, the level of effective interaction between those areas and local government is far too spasmodic and there isn’t a meaningful input from local government into many decisions which are being made. This could well lead to additional work and cost within local government. Therefore it is important that local government is tightly linked into those considerations.

EGM: Should there be more direction from the Office of the e-Envoy?

JH: The OeE certainly isn’t being as effective as I had hoped it would be in terms of bringing the parties together. The ODPM has at least got people round the table. I don’t see that happening with the OeE. I don’t see the OeE stamping its authority on other government departments. What I see is other government departments having their own priorities and needing to run with those. There isn’t a visible impact from the OeE in terms of these things. This is one of the areas that local government can actually help, because local government through its many participants has got the ability at any time to make a contribution to the debate. There are liaison mechanisms with the OeE that I think could be re-engineered to create a far more proactive interface with some of the other major government departments and indeed reinforce the role of the OeE in terms of being the central arbiter on priorities and standards.

EGM: Are you happy with the extent of the discussion about take-up of services in the National Strategy?

JH: Take-up is important, clearly. But we mustn’t get hung up on the idea that eGovernment is only about take-up by the customer. It’s also about assisting the staff of the organisation and its partners to deliver their services more effectively. So it’s about providing the social worker with the tools to be able to deliver services at the home of the client more effectively. It’s about providing the library assistant with the tools to be able to handle requests and applications across a wider range of services. That’s not take-up in the ‘internet’ sense but it is absolutely vital in terms of providing better customer service. Likewise, if you consider that 70-80 per cent of interactions with local authorities are via the telephone, all this investment is very important in order to be able to enrich through electronic support the variety of services that can be provided on the telephone.

The other area that I keep as a personal hobby horse is the whole issue of interoperability and ‘joining-up’ the organisation internally and the organisation with its partners. Much of the thrust of the strategy will either directly or indirectly create the tools, processes and standards for that interoperability to be put in place. If you look at the National Projects around multi-agency working, workflow and website standards, there needs to be a greater commitment to these information standards that were established through pathfinders.

All of that is not just about take-up, it’s also very much about joining-up services. I don’t think we should allow ourselves to be diverted or seduced by ‘take-up’. It’s not as straightforward as that. If you take my own local authority as an illustration; we recently revamped our website and focused our online services on the front page with a single link. Previously they were dispersed throughout the website. That in itself has had a phenomenal impact on take-up, possibly doubled. That’s not actually doing any more, its just doing something differently.

Similarly, I think in areas like transactions, say parking fines, which are now widely-recognised as a major success story, the ability to pay on the web or through ATP [Automated Telephone Payment] really seems now to be coming through as a phenomenal advantage in terms of customer service. We must not lose sight of this. That’s payback, and also it provides a mechanism for other things to be put on the back of it. We ought to focus on those things that we require the public to do and the things they have to do anyway. Some services like reporting faults, potholes, graffiti or abandoned vehicles – most people may prefer doing it over the phone than the internet and therefore we should be offering that choice.

EGM: Do you think that there need be more work done in this area or do we pretty much know how people prefer to do things?

JH: Of course there is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence. On the research side I think there needs to be far more work to clarify just what the savings are from eGovernment. I haven’t seen any recent authoritative and detailed studies on that in the UK. There needs to be far more research into customer behaviour in the public sector. The commercial examples are all getting a bit jaded now. We are now at the point with the level of experience we’ve got in e-service delivery that we can probably start to do some very good research. I’ve got a feeling the ODPM may have commissioned something, I’m really not sure; which is another example of where it would be helpful to have more information on the website.

EGM: So you’re pretty much satisfied that the local government voice is being heard at the ODPM level. When we spoke last, one of the areas that possibly needed attention was that of a more united voice for local government. Are SOCITM working more closely with SOLACE, LGA, IDeA, IPF and others?

JH: At the moment the National Strategy has just been released. It has what looks like pretty robust management frameworks around it, including cross-sector programme board and the project steering groups. I think we need to allow those to bed down for a few months and then have a look at how well we are operating. At the moment my perception is that there is a reasonably good dialogue, communications is one of the things you can never have enough of, but at the moment my take on it is that the balance is not bad. I think the ODPM have listened and I think there is much more trust and openness now. At a conference I was chairing recently I congratulated one of the speakers, for being so un-civil-servant-like. I think they have listened and do realise that they need to be a little more open and share things that are in gestation. Personally, I’m recognising a change there, which is helpful.

EGM: So suddenly we have a slight adjustment in the direction and the pace of things that’s allowing everything to converge much more.

JH: Well, that’s a sweeping statement.

EGM: You sound a lot happier now.

JH: I am a lot happier now. I think the issues in terms of the local government family are a lot healthier than they were a few months back. My concerns remain about the connections between local government and the other parts of the public sector in particular. I sense that there are big decisions being taken, which are going to have a major impact on local government, that the implications have not being thought through.

One other issue is that, and it may be a bit early to be saying this but, the ODPM need to start planning for the next version of the strategy now. The world will not stand still; priorities will shift and there will be new projects required. The thought process about how and when to update the strategy needs to start now. The National Strategy itself must have taken about 18 months to bring to fruition. The plans need to be laid now for the new priorities coming down the track in a 12 to 18 month period and how they get handled and blended into the strategy in terms of the next update.

Ó KAM Ltd 2002