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Carts & Horses

For real evidence of the progress of electronic government in Britain, there are times when you don’t have to look much further than your front door.

My local council, The Isle of Thanet, on what the locals call “Planet Thanet” at the Eastern edge of the known universe, has, since my last visit finally, turned its Web site from a token informational mess into a useful source of information, on-line payments and downloadable forms for the relatively low proportion of the local population that has access to the Internet. Whether they actually visit the council Website is another question but then, if they do, there’s no guarantee that the council will actually respond to any enquiries, electronic or otherwise.



Last month, according to the local paper, the Thanet Gazette, the audit commission produced a “Damning” report, “A catalogue of mistakes which included unsatisfactory customer services, a lack of investment in IT, unreliable computer systems and a failure to answer more than a quarter of a million telephone calls.”

Now, to me, this sounds rather more like a progress report for central government and in particular, the note in the report that highlights a "systems crash" in 2003, which resulted in the loss of a large amount of work. But meanwhile, back in Whitehall, the cogs of government continue to grind relentlessly with, last week, The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, releasing the draft proforma for the fourth round of the Implementing Electronic Government Statement exercise, which is a little different to its predecessor, whereas in last year's IEG3 exercise, councils were asked to report on progress against the six-part model of the local e-Organisation, in IEG4 local authorities are required to self-assess their progress towards delivering each of the ODPM's Priority Service Outcomes up to April 2006.

Roughly translated, into English, this means more statistical paperwork to add to the mountain of forms, and meanwhile, the ODPM have decided that everyone, including local councils at the edge of the known universe, could do better and to remind us all that it both exists and is very important, the ODPM has now launched an extensive research programme to assess councils' progress in eGovernment, how they are approaching this task and find out the particular barriers they face. In a separate study, all local authorities will also be contacted shortly about a forthcoming 'web audit' on activity related to environmental issues and services.

Back on Planet Thanet, the council’s Chief Executive, Richard Samuel, reportedly blames his own problems on a level of deprivation on the picturesque island, some of this being a consequence of inner-London councils “outsourcing” many of their refugee problems to the far end of the M2 motorway. With challenges like this, to tackling, eDelivery and worries over the future of public WiFi might be asking too much of a local council that is struggling to find the resources to cut the grass around my local tennis courts. However, whether it has an “E” in front of it or not, efficient communications with the customer, the general public, remains key to local government success and so I called Mr Samuel’s office, introduced myself to PA and said, “With some experience of eGovernment, having been partly to blame for kicking off the entire agenda, I might be able to help, I’m only down the road.” She politely took my details and explained that Mr Samuels was busy and that someone would call me back. That was a week ago and so I guess you can add my name to the quarter of a million lost telephone calls, leaving me to believe that for many councils, the ODPM’s ambitious dreams of universal eGovernment efficiency at local level, are at best wishful thinking or at worst, evidence of putting the cart before an unwilling horse.

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