A month ago, my grandmother asked me to complain to her council about trees. Apparently, tree roots are creating dangerously uneven pavements in Lambeth. Within two days of e-mailing the council, I had received an impressive response, not just from the councillor but also from the officer (in other words, non-politician) responsible for tree planting. But that is not the only way in which technology is helping Lambeth provide a better service for my grandmother. She could use the council website to do a range of things, from reporting broken street lights or paying her council tax to applying to work as a teacher in the borough. And the chances are that many of Lambeth's front-line officers, such as social workers or environmental health inspectors, are increasingly using mobile technology to work more efficiently and effectively while they are out and about providing services to the likes of my grandmother.
All over the country, it appears that local authorities are using technology to provide all sorts of services in better, more convenient ways for citizens. This perception was reinforced by the shortlist for the New Statesman New Media Awards 2004. In the "Modernising government" category, no fewer than five of the ten nominees were local authority initiatives.
So how real is this perception? Are local authorities genuinely making great strides on e-government? And if so, why?
As with many other areas of local authority service provision, there is a measurement. This one has the deceptively anodyne title of "Best value performance indicator 157" and measures how many services government has "e-enabled" (defining this word fully would take a separate article, but it basically means using technology effectively). By 2005, local authorities are meant to have achieved 100 per cent. Like many targets, much of the devil is in the detail and, in fact, this is even trickier to measure consistently than most. But it gives us something to start with.
If you were asked to assess how many of your local authority's services were currently e-enabled, what figure would you put on it? According to a recently published report from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), which manages the local e-government programme, the figure is 71 per cent and it is forecast to hit 99 per cent by March 2006. So, on paper at least, local authorities are progressing very nicely with their e-government programmes. And it is more than likely that you will have benefited from this change in your own local authority over recent years, either by making a transaction over the website or, less directly, by speaking to a council officer who has access to your details through a more sophisticated database than has previously existed.
Aside from the statistics, there are a number of practical reasons why local authorities might be making progress on e-government. The first is that they do have a lot of services, which means that they have a lot of things that can be e-enabled. It is estimated that roughly 80 per cent of the transactions that the public has with government occur via local authorities. No wonder that e-government in local authorities has received such exposure, given that it is applied to everyday services that we can all relate to such as parking permits (and fines), planning applications and reporting graffiti. We notice it more because it is more relevant to us than, say, spectacular enhancements to the back-end systems of Customs and Excise - and because we notice it more, it is more likely to be prioritised.
Another reason for the progress is that many of these services are relatively simple to e-enable. Paying council tax online is a breeze compared to the complexities of paying, for example, income tax. The solution for the former is a straightforward online payment tool, whereas the latter involves all sorts of tricky online calculators, authentication and so on. Local authorities are able to plan on a smaller scale and move more swiftly; in most cases, they are taking full advantage.
The final reason is that the e-enablement of local authorities has been given a high profile and plenty of support by central government. Between 2001 and 2006, the ODPM will have invested £675m in local e-government, and this has been supplemented by a host of targets and initiatives designed to galvanise local authorities into full e-government implementation. As with many such schemes, it has been a bit of a curate's egg; some advice and guidance has been helpful, some not. But the main effect of the programme has been to ensure that there has been a fairly consistent level of progress among all authorities, and that is no mean achievement.
Before we get too carried away, it is worth sounding two notes of caution. First, it is very hard to establish the extent to which these new technologies have brought genuine benefits to local authorities and their customers. There are few aggregated statistics for online transactions or page views on local authority websites, and where they do exist, they tend to be not very impressive. There are even fewer examples of initiatives that have directly increased customer satisfaction or have directly produced cost savings. It is striking that only now, in the fourth year of a five-year programme, the ODPM is looking to set up national standards for take-up measurements on e-government initiatives.
Second, from a UK plc point of view, it is worth asking whether local authorities really deserve all this attention. For example, in many ways, the local authority e-government programme has had a head start over the national IT programme for the National Health Service, even though the effective use of technology in the NHS is likely to improve citizen welfare far more than most applications of it in local authorities. Perhaps the government has been seduced into prioritising local authorities because paying parking fines online is both easier to implement and more visible to the citizen than cleverly linking up back-end systems in the NHS.
However, neither of these quibbles should obscure the enormous amount that local authorities have achieved on e-government in a very short time. Many of these developments are already improving the quality of life for citizens every day. If you want proof, just ask my grandmother to tell you about trees.
Alexander Stevenson is a director of RSe Consulting, a strategic consultancy that has advised more than 70 local authorities on their e-government strategies