Features: June 16th, 2006

Joining-up Councils Online

By Janet Callender

Allowing councils and other public bodies to talk to each other online is a major challenge. To meet this challenge the Government Connect initiative was launched in March 2005 by local authorities, the DCLG (formerly the ODPM) and the e-Government Unit of the Cabinet Office. Government Connect brings together a range of technical solutions and it is compatible with existing networks such as the Government Secure Network , the Criminal Justice Network and National Health Network. It provides a common infrastructure for local authorities to gain secure online communications and information sharing across local and central government departments and their public sector partners. It will also provide a single, secure sign on account for all citizens so that they can access anything from passport renewal to personal health information securely online.

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council was involved in Government Connect as a key partner throughout the early phases and subsequently took on the leadership of the initiative. The council is a 4 star Authority with a national reputation for ICT.

I believe a real strength we will bring to GC is around leadership and customer focus, creating vision, passion and enthusiasm for achieving the community outcomes we’re all striving for. Because we’re already playing into a number of important modernisation agendas, I believe we can provide the right platform to give GC the profile it now needs, making it accessible to the far wider Local and Central Government audience that the programme now needs to reach.

Strong foundations have already been laid, ensuring that we have the right team, the correct infrastructure, and the right suite of products in place. I firmly believe that the time is now right to start delivering on the GC promises, and that there are some very exciting opportunities ahead.

There is a high level of awareness right across the public sector, about Government Connect and its potential for helping Local and Central Government to transform public services in a way that really puts the citizen at the heart of all we do and really improves ordinary people’s lives. GC will provide the right solutions to overcome the challenges of delivering online identity management and secure communications, as well as providing more efficient, more joined up, more personalised and customer-focused services.

Increasing involvement

Government Connect has already received a very positive response from the Local Authority community. We now have over 80 early adopter Local Authorities helping us to refine the GC Solutions, as well as a substantial network of suppliers to help us take Government Connect forwards. Through our piloting work, we are ensuring that we deliver the best possible solutions to meet all Local Authorities’ needs.

Because the technical trials are nearly complete and have gone very well to date, we are now in a strong position, and will be refining and rolling out the GC Solutions to the Local Authority community over the coming year. Our aim is to have around 200 Local Authorities using GC Solutions by the end of 2006, and all Local Authorities by close of 2007. Whilst there is still much work to do, we are now in a place of real confidence. The pilots are serving as tried and tested examples of GC Solutions that are proving effective and relevant to Local Authorities. The North West e-Government Group’s involvement also illustrates that these are solutions that fit across networks and partnerships.

Supporting partnerships

Whilst Government Connect is primarily focusing on delivery to the Local Authority community at this stage, our ultimate vision is to support multi-agency working across all of local and central Government and key partners across the public sector. GC has certainly been built with this in mind. In this respect, it is the first example of a truly national common infrastructure, upon which we can all build our services in a customer focused way.

Government Connect creates the potential to completely change the landscape of communication across Local and Central Government. Because of this, we want to make the solutions as cost effective and accessible as possible and have identified a number of ways to ensure this. In our current pricing structure we have identified a potential 25% discount for partnerships to encourage partnership take-up of GC Solutions. Additionally, we have also started offering a scaleable bandwidth so that councils can buy the most appropriate link to GC. We will continue to ensure GC Solutions are affordable to all.

Flexible approach

One of the main principles of GC is that it will protect and complement the investment Local Authorities have already made in their e-Government programmes. GC is standards based and its products simply build on existing infrastructure investment made to date, maximising the impact of it and ensuring the value of that investment is preserved. In many instances this means building on the best of the local e-agenda and combining or enhancing it with GC Solutions. For this reason, we have intentionally taken a flexible approach and tailored our product offering so that Local Authorities can choose which GC product they want, and what service areas they apply it to.

Initially, there will be a ‘Core’ offering which will include connection to the secure network, secure email, XML messaging and citizen authentication. Whilst we would hope that every Local Authority would be looking to implement GC at an organisation-wide level, we are conscious that many of the early adopters and other interested Authorities will be looking at specific components from within the GC range, for specific services areas.

Implementation

In preparation for our imminent roll-out of GC Solutions we are also busy recruiting a team who will work closely with the Regional e-Partnerships to provide local support and advice services to all Councils using GC products. This team will provide hands-on support to Local Authorities and help with all the questions and issues an Authority may have when considering their investment into GC and ensuring their readiness. They will also provide support afterwards, with some of the business change issues that may possibly arise, helping every Local Authority to realise all the savings and benefits which Government Connect can offer them.

Ultimately, I am very confident that we will see GC go from strength to strength over the coming year. We are building on some very firm foundations including a demonstrable track record of delivering real outcomes for our communities. We are experiencing a more mature relationship between Local and Central Government based on mutual trust, allowing Local Authorities the space to lead in their localities. The challenge now is for every Authority and Partnership to engage with us.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we are stronger and more effective working together than apart. I believe that by seizing the opportunities that GC presents, we can once and for all use technology to integrate the process of Government and deliver real improvements in the lives of ordinary people. This is not a pipedream – through GC it’s a reality … it’s all there for the taking!

Janet Callender is Chief Executive of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council and Chair of the North West e-Government Group.