16 June 2000
People stopped and stared at the Digital Britain 2000 conference when Rosi Somerville revealed the sum of money being wasted on different – and often contradictory – systems of simply recording addresses.
Somerville, local authority adviser at the Improvement and Development Agency for local government (Idea), said that use of more modern methods of information management revealed that some boroughs actually had 30% more addresses than they thought.
The explanation is that, because councils use Royal Mail databases to compile basic address lists, addresses that don't need a postal service – public conveniences are one example – never appear. 'There can be whole streets of which authorities are not aware,' Somerville said.
'There are almost 500 local authorities, each maintaining addresses in perhaps 30 or 40 different ways,' she pointed out. 'By having a single generic address set, conforming to a national standard, it would save having to maintain so many different sets of data. 'We want to show how sensible it is to share common information, whether that is information about property or people.'
The potential £200m saving, Somerville said, was calculated as the amount of money Idea believed was being wasted on multiple address recording systems such as the electoral roll, council tax lists, or social services records.
The agency is involved in several projects aimed at creating national standards for data held by local authorities, to help them achieve significant savings as well as greater efficiency. One of its key projects has been developing the National Land Information Service, which goes live on July 18. It will cut down substantially on the time taken by solicitors and others when they need to do a search on local property information for conveyancing or other legal procedures.
Another project under way is a national street gazetteer, which aims to produce a common standard for information held by local authorities about addresses in their areas, and which would be a complete and easily accessible list of every address in a given area.
Somerville emphasised that standardising and matching up information held in different ways in different databases is a huge task. 'There is a lot of work to be done within local authorities to match up their internal databases,' she said, adding that the results often reveal more about local areas than authorities realise.
The conference, held in London, was organised by Microsoft, whose chief executive, Steve Ballmer, preoccupied with an appeal against the recent US legal ruling that the Bill Gates-founded company should be broken in two, spoke of the business benefits of Internet-based trading. The US Department of Justice permitting, he said, Microsoft was intent on turning itself into a web-based company, delivering software as a service.
Other speakers included Sir Peter Bonfield, chief executive of BT, Terry Leahy, Tesco's chief executive, and Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the man behind the easyJet low-cost airline and its spin-offs, including his booming chain of Internet cafés in London.
Haji-Ioannou outlined his plans for web-based hire car and financial services. He expects the latter to do well. 'Everybody likes easyMoney,' he quipped.
Government e-envoy Alex Allan presented some of the progress made so far by the government in not only acting as an enabler of e-commerce, but also in providing examples of good practice, particularly in government procurement.
Patricia Hewitt, minister for e-commerce, faced questions over the taxation of IT equipment and services that are provided by employers as a benefit for their employees.
According to one recent survey, this has now become a major perk for many members of staff, second in popularity only to company pensions.
The gap between reality and rhetoric as organisations adjust to new, electronic ways of working was highlighted by Professor Gary Hamel, one of the world's leading management strategy gurus. 'Organisations say they treat their workforce as their most valuable asset, as intellectual property, but the reality is that staff are now more expendable than ever before,' Hamel said.
'The rhetoric is that companies want their staff to enjoy a good work/life balance, but the reality is companies where staff dare not go off for a weekend without a mobile phone.'
The problem, according to Hamel, is that most organisations are simply not built for the new age of change and that they face huge challenges in unpicking the way they have done things, in order to adapt to the new world.
'Success has never been more fleeting,' he commented. 'Incumbency in a market has never been worth less. Newcomers are creating most of the new wealth. The barbarians are not at the gate, they are eating off your best china.'