Features: November 4th, 2003

The Vision Thing

By Warren Hatter, Head of Research, New Local Government Network

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

Running an identically themed event at each of the main Party Conferences in the Autumn, you are likely to find either a polarisation of views or a lot of common agreement. New Local Govenrment Network (NLGN) did just this recently, with a series of fringe meetings entitled ‘Can e-Government really transform public services in local government?’, all of which were supported by and involved Vertex.

If there was a consensus across the range of speakers at the three events, it is that eGovernment can make a real difference, and is already transforming some services for the better. But ‘Localism’ seems to be the order of the day, with a range of speakers talking of their own authority – or one with which they are familiar – and the difference it is making in specific areas.

So the general picture is not one of massive overall transformation, but of steady, piecemeal change driven by local visionaries. Examples come from across the political spectrum.

Different visions

Hazel Harding, Labour Leader of Lancashire County Council spoke about the way the County has joined with six districts in developing access to the Council. A single set of innovations is joining up both the back and front office, and joining up different tiers of authority. Also, in line with the members’ vision, callers are dealt with by “real people”, not an interactive phone menu.

Simon Milton, Conservative Leader of the City of Westminster, alluded to the Dutch concept of ‘Total Football’ where tactics and player roles are interchangeable, in wanting to be a total council. One example of this is through the use of IT innovation to streamline the experience that people have when they move to the City. In a single transaction with the authority, he wants people to be able to do everything from setting up their Council Tax accounts to joining the local leisure centre.

But it’s not all about local visions. Andrew Larner, Director of the Local Government Information House at IDeA used a national project as an exemplar of what can be achieved with the type of clear vision that all speakers were promoting. By developing the National Land Information Service (NLIS), homebuyers needing land searches – and what could me more local than that? – can access a service that has reduced turn around time from typically 12 weeks to as little as 13 minutes, and reduced the error rate to boot. The NLIS has now processed over one million searches related to house sales.

The approach that Andrew promotes at a local level begins with citizen focus. What are the areas of demand? And what are the problem areas in current service delivery? Focus efforts here and you have a decent starting point for a worthwhile eGovernment innovation. This makes his approach consistent with the ‘local visions’ approach, because it is not about wholesale, exciting, technology-driven change, but about real people with real needs. As he says, eGovernment is not about putting “lipstick on a pig”.

Warning voices

Part of the focus of the contributions from a number of Vertex representatives at the three events was effectively about the next stage on from having the vision – making it a reality. They were clear about seeing eGovernment as much more than a veneer in front of traditional service delivery. It is end-to-end business transformation that gets benefits and makes the investment worthwhile. In practice, what this means is that, as with all change, effective eGovernment is actually about people – because people drive change.

Speaking at our Conservative event, Tom Drury of Vertex also highlighted the need to consider capacity issues. It can be counter-productive using IT to improve access to a service, only to realise too late that you do not have anywhere near the in-house capacity required to meet the demand you have just encouraged. There is clearly still much for the public sector to learn from the private sector about managing capacity – not least if we are serious about expanding choice in public services – but that is a discussion for another day.

Discussions like these are bound to lead us to questions about the culture of local government. Here, there were some contrasting views. Richard Allan MP, the Liberal Democrats IT spokesperson, shared his perception of local government as having a lower level of risk aversion than in the past, although he has concerns that elected members do not get involved enough in eGovernment issues. In contrast, Eric Pickles MP, the Conservative Party’s shadow minister for local government, was scathing – though entertaining – about local government’s approach. He gave an account (fictional, of course) of a council leader approaching the chief executive with a great suggestion for using IT to increase user focus, and being diverted to ‘Blenkinsopp’, who “looks after” IT in the authority, but who is probably more interested in the Klingon translator posted on his office door. The main points here are important: first, that eGovernment is not something that can be hived off to a specific department; second, that council leaders have to trust their vision. It’s that ‘V’ word again.

Based on the contributions elicited by NLGN, there is every reason to think that one of the key issues related to eGovernment will be fully addressed. Specifically, the risk of introducing or widening social exclusion. Douglas Alexander MP, the Cabinet Office Minister said that the Government’s approach to eGovernment is based around a “vision of an egalitarian future”.

Paul Bettison, Leader of Bracknell Forest Council was even more specific – when speaking from the floor at our Conservative Party event – being very clear about the distinction between public and private sector. In the example he cited, a bank that successfully encourages 90 per cent of its customers over to (more cost-effective) online banking can, if it wishes, make the decision to lose the (less profitable) custom of the 10 per cent who are stubborn enough to prefer a personal touch. The same does not apply to local government, which cannot cast some of its populace adrift. Indeed, if we look further ahead, we can foresee a similar scenario applying to local services. In shaping future services and developing eGovernment solutions, we should be aware that, even in the long run, there will be people who do not want to use them and – overall – that should continue to be their right.

All in all, the contributions were encouraging, because there is clearly a massive amount going on at a local level. There are plenty of authorities who do have a vision. Usually, it is their own vision and, although we might have reservations that there should be more joint working between authorities, this can only be a good thing. If all authorities were marching to the same drumbeat, then we might have reason to be worried. After all, it is the major IT projects in the public sector that seem to fail most often.

At the same time, there is clearly much to be done. One contributor reminded the audience that the British public rates among the top few countries on the amount of electronic contact people have with the private sector – but is well down the table when it comes to similar contact with the public sector. There is enough vision in the local government family to change this.

Warren Hatter became NLGN’s Head of Research in October 2002, following 11 years in MORI’s Local Government Research Unit. Warren has managed and directed over 300 projects for local government – ranging from representative sample surveys of residents, through extensive qualitative research, to national case-study based reviews for central government. Working extensively with senior members and officers, he has a track record of communicating to a senior audience the implications of research findings. Warren can be contacted on warren.hatter@nlgn.org.uk