The drive to make Government services available online by 2005 was one of the biggest challenges faced by local authorities in the UK for decades – organisationally, culturally, financially and technically.Of these, the cultural shift was without doubt one of the hardest to effect. But in the last year particularly there has been a noticeable shift in attitude. There is a much greater understanding of, and enthusiasm for eGovernment, and the technology that enables it, amongst the public sector community and from citizens themselves. Thanks to the eGovernment targets, technology has been established as an integral force in driving better functioning Government.
By the December 2005 deadline 97% of local government services were on-line. Across Government as a whole the figure is 95%. Take-up of services varies and although in some areas it is disappointing, it is increasing. Some 79% of all vehicle registrations are already completed online, more than 60,000 Court Service claims have been issued using electronic channels, and the number of tax returns filed online has doubled in a year. eGovernment is the norm for a growing number of citizens, so much so that one could argue that it is time to drop the ‘e’ from eGovernment and look at what comes next.
Moving the focus to implementation
What does come next in the modernisation of Government? The eGovernment targets were a prescriptive set of directives which set the wheels of modernisation in motion. The focus now should be on implementing technology as a vital part of ongoing organisational development, to meet the requirements outlined in the Gershon Efficiency Review.
Gershon demands that local authorities further improve access to services, while realising £6.45billion savings. Yet it makes few recommendations on how to achieve this, posing a catch 22 situation for local authorities, as these aims appear to be polar opposites.
Harnessing technology to deliver Gershon savings
With the help of technology both aims should be entirely possible. While technology is not an end in itself, it can provide ways of revolutionising both the relationship between citizen and public services and the way in which public services are delivered. Decision-makers should seize this opportunity to identify their organisation’s individual priorities and use IT as a powerful tool for change.
It has been said that Gershon is “not just a stick but also a carrot”, meaning that authorities should see Gershon as a positive opportunity to build on the organisational change already achieved within the sector. The aims of Gershon will only be realised if modern technology is considered in combination with effective change management and best practice processes.
Managers need to think creatively about their authority’s key strengths and to work out how best to share best practice with other councils and central Government. Undoubtedly authorities will have to “speculate to accumulate” where IT investment is concerned, as it may take two or three years to see the benefits.
Sharing resources can significantly reduce the upfront costs of investment and is often underused at present by local authorities. It is one of the most exciting opportunities opened up by Gershon as a way of making the most of limited resources and committing to otherwise unviable projects. Cost benefits aside, it also opens up a wealth of new possibilities for authorities to learn from each other and also from private sector partners. From collaborating on back-end systems to launching new interactive TV services for citizens, the possibilities are endless.
The problem at present is there are few working examples that show the potential savings, but as more partnership projects are completed there will be more data to encourage the partnership approach.
One good example is the Cambridgeshire Community Network (CCN), which has taken an innovative approach to solving the problems of social inclusion. CCN brings together 100 community outlets with the Community Portal and Contact Centre in order to provide a variety of channels to reach citizens and vice versa. The project has only been made possible though joint funding and the sharing of resources. It is funded in part by central resources and partly through the efficient amalgamation of other initiatives – National Grid for Learning and the People’s Network.
The project has successfully connected libraries to the network, to provide improved learning and access for all. It also involves the provision of 100 points of access in locations such as pubs and Post Offices so that anyone can utilise the resources or communicate online with the council.
Under Gershon, those authorities which embrace technology as the cornerstone of their ongoing modernisation strategy and invest in innovative new services will be those that reap the biggest rewards in the long term. These will be the authorities most able to identify the needs of their citizens and respond accordingly. Innovation for innovations sake is not a good use of resources, and success will only come in meeting the needs of the local community and properly educating them.
The Government has completed much of what it set out to achieve by introducing the 2005 eGovernment targets and has put the public sector on the right route for change. It has set a healthy climate where the focus is more citizen centric and technology is an intrinsic part of “the day job.”
In the same way, technology underpins the future success of Gershon. With investment still buoyant in the sector, local authorities are clearly keen to maintain momentum and are using technology as a part of ongoing problem solving and strategy planning. How they pick up the pace and build on the eGovernment foundations is now up to them. Working in partnership with fellow authorities and technology vendors who understand their needs will be crucial.
Steve Boon is Director of Public Sector Services for ntl’s business division.