Features: April 15th, 2005

Taking A Good Hard Look At E-Government

By Donato Piccinno

E-government has become something of a buzzword, with local authorities racing towards new hardware and software packages that deliver the ‘tick in the box’. However, Donato Piccinno, IT Project Manager at Leicestershire County Council, warns that flash ‘eye-candy’ systems are not up to the task. He advises a more considered ‘bottom-up’ solution and suggests that Councils should go back to basics…

E-government is a natural progression of the technological advances of our age. Everyone is now a ‘customer’ and all customers are interested in ease of access and speed of response. In order to create a dynamic and ongoing dialogue between a local authority and the public it serves, we must expect a radical overhaul in the way in which we ‘do business’.

In other words, the local authority as service provider is following the trend towards ‘one-stop shopping’ and single points of access. This could offer multiple benefits – streamlining bureaucratic structures, creating a direct line between service provider and recipient and, ultimately encouraging active participation from the public as e-citizens with a vital say in the services offered by their Council.

The race to the deadline

However, to deliver this vision of tomorrow, we really need to look at the reality of where we are today. After decades of paper-based administration, many authorities have been slow to fully embrace the potential of new technology. Even those early adopters who advocated the paperless office have had difficulty keeping up with the pace of technological change as it occurred on an almost weekly basis.

Now, however, there is an added incentive to get it right. Central Government is investing millions in grants associated with the switch to e-government and the

pressure is on to demonstrate quantifiable progress by the end of 2005. The net result is a frantic race towards impressively expensive systems, intranets and websites – but will this provide the foundation stone for future expansion across the authority’s portfolio of services.

The need for a re-think to meet e-government objectives

Surprisingly, considering that e-government is all about efficiency through joined up thinking and single point of delivery, many local authorities appear to have been seduced by the ‘quick fix’. What is actually required is a slightly less glamorous, slightly more practical, adaptable long-term solution which has the capacity for growth.

I first started looking at a central datacapture system when looking at the Council’s booking systems for services such as speakers, meeting rooms, crèche spaces, etc. Each of these services was operating a stand-alone computer system which had no potential for expansion into a horizontal, relational database. This was not only inefficient and short-sighted, it also held no provision for a centralised overview of combined operations. Nor was it possible to extend the existing systems to include a Customer Relationship programme, which would allow us to monitor the specific needs and requirements of our customers (another specific objective of the e-government initiative).

What was required was a data model that offered a generic way of thinking around information systems – similar to the IBM ‘Zackman Framework’ – and which would cull information from back office systems to provide a single comprehensive data source.

At the same time, a team of software designers at ID Dynamics in Leeds were developing a resource management system designed specifically for training

companies. As the development process unfolded, the team realised that the potential

for management of any ‘business-critical’ data was huge and that the product would have potential applications in many industry sectors. Coincidentally, they approached me and we worked together over the next 12 months to tailor the system to meet the County Council’s specific needs. The resulting solution is efficient, economical and flexible. All the functionality is there to allow it to expand and evolve as the move towards e-government takes shape and this single solution offers an excellent resource scheduling engine, customer relationship management tool and booking administration system in a single integrated application.

So, if the central objectives of e-government are:

  • to enable customer to access local service any time/any place
  • to provide a one-stop shop for customer transactions (eg., bill payments, booking

of facilities, making planning or license applications and tracking service requests)

  • to improve the dialogue between customer and Council
  • to allow for ‘joined up thinking’ and exchange of data between government agencies and organisations

then a sexy ‘front-end’ website is only half of the picture. Rather like the graceful swan, this is the public face of the offering while underneath swarms of local authority employees are paddling like crazy !

We cannot allow ourselves to go down the ‘form over function’ route if e-government is to become a reality. What we can do is to take a good, hard look at what we actually want these new technologies to achieve and then reverse engineer a solution that delivers the goods.