Features: January 28th, 2005

Better Access To e-Government

By Lucy Brown

With the current flurry of activity, as councils work towards the 2005 deadline, it’s easy to think that e-Government is a new phenomenon. In fact, the drive to modernise public services and improve citizen access is far from recent. The big question is, given all the enthusiasm, activity, and money spend, has there been real progress?

There have been many trials and pilots and much has been learned. But limited collaboration has led to much reinventing of the wheel. Many organisations have failed to learn from peers’ experiences and instead have opted to explore technology individually to see what works and what doesn’t.

This had led to a fragmented picture, with some citizens having excellent access to information and services, while others are less lucky in the lottery.

A recent study conducted by ntl revealed that 98% of Local Government organisations claim to be on track to meet the 2005 targets set by Central Government. Yet, hampered by time and budget restrictions, stress levels are up for nearly half of those surveyed. Furthermore, for the quarter of authorities not yet at implementation stage, the clock is really ticking.

Disappointingly, for those that do hit the deadline, it is unlikely to be to popular acclaim. The public sector believes that 40% of Internet-users are aware of electronic services, yet our research revealed that only 12% of the UK’s Internet-savvy population are aware of the drive for e-Government and only 8% use services regularly at present.

So, if public service organisations are to deliver an efficient and effective access strategy that empowers both employees and citizens, there is clearly much to be done. In the first instance, councils need to think about how to publicise services and drive demand.

Better access by joining up

Our research also suggests that the public would prefer to see public services (e.g. health, local government, education) working more closely together, and sharing information. Further investment is required to ensure a more collaborative approach. Projects where councils have worked with local NHS and LEA partners have demonstrated the benefits that joined-up working and information sharing can deliver to local citizens.

One of the most important drivers in successfully ensuring a collaborative approach is implementing the right technology to impact upon the development of e-Government. One such technology is IP (Internet Protocol). IP networking overcomes the primary issues that inhibit more effective joined-up working – namely the constraints of time and distance. With IP, a local authority can, for example, seamlessly create Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that link up staff in disparate sites as if they were all working in a single office.

For example, one IP VPN might join up all the local health trusts and hospitals, another connect them to schools and other parts of the local authority, and another might connect them to relevant national organisations when necessary – from the Department for Health to doctors surgeries across the country.

Exchanging citizen data in such a dynamic manner is vital to achieve the ‘joined-up’ working demanded by e-Government targets, but is of course only viable if that information is kept secure. Effective IP Security (IPSec) capabilities must be built-in and configured to create a secure path between offices and other sites using robust encryption technology.

Moving forward, new communications networks, such as those delivered by IP technology, will provide the underlying infrastructure over which a wide range of e-Government services will be built, developed and maintained. Whether this means a joined-up call centre connecting multiple council departments and sites, online planning application services or e-voting, investment in the appropriate foundations now will enable more efficient, cost-effective and speedier roll-out of services in the future.

Joining up in practice

In Cambridgeshire ntl has worked with the authority to build a fully managed, county-wide broadband network: the Cambridgeshire Community Network (CCN). This provides the council with a high-capacity infrastructure that underpins roll-out of e-Government services and allows information exchange between partners such as the NHS, education boards and suppliers. The award-winning solution, heralded as the UK’s most ambitious and inclusive countywide broadband community network, currently delivers broadband to 256 local schools and links district and county council offices, libraries and 100 public access points such as pubs and post offices.

The challenge was to boost social inclusion by serving Cambridgeshire’s highly developed urban centres, plus more remote rural areas where access to technology can be limited. To address this issue, Cambridgeshire County Council (CCC) established a partnership – comprising itself, all Cambridgeshire’s District Councils, the Cambridgeshire Health Authority, East of England Development Agency, Cambridgeshire’s Learning Partnership, and community initiatives – which developed the CCN concept. The result is a county-wide broadband partnership and network that delivers a reliable, scaleable infrastructure to support ongoing community development and delivery of electronic services, and more efficient communication between partners.

In line with the 2005 deadline for ‘electronic government’ ntl has worked to extend broadband connectivity beyond high-tech Cambridge and into rural areas such as the Fens. Citizens are now able to access electronic services, information and learning resources, wherever they are and offers citizen-focused, flexible and accessible service.

Contact centres are another area in which local authorities are able to improve services available to local citizens, for example by building on existing managed telephony ‘Centrex’ systems.

North-East Lincolnshire Council (NELC) is a great example. Recognising the need to improve the way it dealt with customer phone calls and meet e-Government targets for electronic service delivery, the council decided to take urgent action. This had to be balanced against other critical priorities and extremely tight budget constraints.

The council chose to install a multi-site, distributed IP contact centre, providing mobility and unified messaging, which has been integrated with the council’s existing ntl Centrex managed voice network. The solution features Computer-Telephony Integration (CTI) that automatically brings up caller details, enabling agents to deal with calls more efficiently. The council can access valuable information about call volumes and patterns, giving it the visibility to manage staffing levels effectively.

Providing access to local information and services remains a major issue for Local and Central Government. If the 2005 deadline is to be met and progress is to continue beyond this date, commitment and help to develop a more structured approach to access is needed. This will not just involve implementing new technology but will ensure better use of scarce resources and the birth of more joined-up services.

Lucy Brown is Director of Sector Marketing in ntl’s business division.