10 March 2000
Last year's Modernising Government white paper committed the public sector to a target of making all services deliverable electronically by 2008. Although officially a central government target, it is seen as the de facto standard for local government.
Public Finance understands Tony Blair has already discussed bringing the 100% target forward by three years. Blair re-emphasised his commitment to e-government in a speech on March 7: 'Making sure everyone has access to the Internet will both improve our competitiveness and reduce social exclusion,' he said.
Barry Quirk, chief executive of the London Borough of Lewisham, said a review of the Modernising Government targets was 'highly likely' following the prime minister's new goal of creating a 'people's Internet' within five years. 'If the public has universal access, we have to be ready to have all services deliverable on-line,' he told Public Finance.
Quirk, one of the government's information age champions, said the real challenge for town halls would be decommissioning traditional service outlets. Despite the huge difficulties councils face in closing any public facilities, Quirk said it was the only way to reach the targets within an environment of constrained finances.
And he spelt out the implication of revised e-government targets for town halls. 'Essentially we'd have four years to review our asset base and to channel money into redeveloping services.'
It promises to be an uphill struggle. According to a recent survey by town hall body the Society of IT Management some 60% of council websites are currently purely promotional, making little use of e-mail or on-line feedback.
The government has spent the week polishing its e-credentials. On March 6, Chancellor Gordon Brown announced £52m to improve on-line services provided by Inland Revenue, Customs & Excise and the Department of Trade & Industry.
This was followed just a day later by the prime minister's promise on universal access. He said the Internet would be as ubiquitous and as normal as electricity is today: 'We cannot accept a digital divide, for business or for individuals.'