How telephone got Blair off e-government hook

4 Nov 99
As political pledges go, there are harder ones.

05 November 1999

In October 1997 Tony Blair promised that 'within five years, one quarter of dealings with government will be done by a member of the public electronically – through their television, telephone, or computer'. It turns out that they already can.

Earlier this year, an audit was conducted of government interdepartmental dealings and it was found that 38% of them were capable of being conducted electronically – mostly through the telephone. The Local Government Association is certain that the situation is similar for local authorities, and the 25% 'target' turns out to be no target at all.

Worse than that is the news that the target never covered local government anyway – which is responsible for four times as many transactions with citizens as central government. (The NHS is also outside the commitment – but most of its services are impossible to deliver electronically.)

Most observers assumed local government was included in the Modernising Government white paper's target, as it was drafted in consultation with the LGA and specifically stated, in addition to the 25% figure, that 50% of dealings with government should be electronically deliverable by 2005 and 100% by 2008.

However, the LGA is now negotiating with the government for an opt-out from these later dates for local authorities whose Best Value priorities are services unsuited to electronic delivery, such as social services or direct service organisations.

John Blundell, the LGA's chief economist, says that councils' electronic transaction targets must be dependent on their Best Value obligations. 'The LGA, the Cabinet Office and the Central Information Technology Unit are meeting to agree a process for target-setting that is consistent with and similar to those for government departments, but the line we are taking is that whatever is set as targets for local government needs to be consistent with the Best Value process,' he explains.

'The Best Value priorities are under-performing, weak services. So if these are not ones where electronic systems make sense, there may not be new electronic delivery systems in place until 2005 or so.'

The news that local government is not actually committed to the electronic government targets has come as a shock to many in the IT industry, who assumed they had a green light to sell more hardware and software to councils.

Instead, some are reporting procrastination. Phil Benton, managing director of IT supplier Radius, says: 'I am very disappointed that central government is offering neither carrot nor stick to local authorities to fully implement e-government. I fear that e-government technology will now be given a lower priority by local authorities.'

Peter Deane, Microsoft's government industry manager, argues that the reality is that targets will have no impact on resistant councils anyway. 'There will be local authorities who genuinely believe that there is some merit in the application of technology,' he says. 'If they believe that and are passionate enough, they will go ahead regardless of government targets and achieve their own targets. If a local authority passionately believes there is no value in electronic interaction with their citizens it doesn't matter what central government says.

'What might bite councils in the bottom is the point at which central government intervenes, as it will be able to under Best Value, and decides to send in a private sector body to implement things instead. It doesn't surprise me that local government is having difficulty coming to terms with new technology and the culture associated with that. I think perhaps central government and the LGA were too ready to make commitments without thinking of all the implications. I don't think it was ungenuine, it was just a bit naive.'

Steps are being taken, though, to assist councils in choosing which services to adapt to electronic delivery, and how. The Improvement and Development Agency is producing a guide for local authorities – due to be published early next year – which will report on best practice from local and central government. Results of pilot schemes funded through the Treasury's Invest to Save scheme are likely to influence the recommendations.

But despite the LGA's attempts at delay, the truth is that what looked like a very ambitious objective of the prime minister in reality amounts to very little. One of the misunderstandings – propagated by journalists – was that electronic government referred only to the Internet, interactive TV and multimedia kiosks. Once the telephone is also treated as an electronic system, then the targets offer much less of a challenge. Tony Blair may have promised rather less than it seemed.


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