e-government is the single biggest challenge to face local councils. It is all-pervasive, affecting all parts of the organisation. It has a pace and momentum that is such that it is difficult for an organisation to control. All councils are now grappling with e-government in a variety of ways. Some are developing "customer relationship management", some have implemented smart-cards yet other are utilising digital tv and on-line services. The variations are endless. One area that has been slow to develop is that of e-commerce but in my view this is the sleeping giant of e-government that will soon wake up and make its pressure felt in our sector.
e-government is already having a significant impact on how Chief Executives behave and manage their councils and it is another indication of the breadth of the impact that this is being felt at macro and micro levels. I have categorised this impact into 4 areas:-
The impact of e-government on the provision of and acquisition of information is now widely recognised. Information about our councils and services can be made readily available on-line. Not only is this available to a global audience but as it is electronic it can be updated instantly. This is far more cost effective than printing leaflets and forms and then throwing these away as they become out of date. Perhaps a key area for Chief Executives is the ability to access information quickly and effectively. Services such as "info 4 local" system can offer access to important reports several days before the paper copies arrive in the post. To have that "head start" is often invaluable to a Chief Executive.
Communication flows naturally from Information and on-line communication has had an enormous impact on Chief Executives. However I believe that so far we have only seen a small percentage of the overall potential. Although video-conferencing is not widely used due to the lack of suitable facilities how many of us make full use of audio conferencing? And yet we all have access to the telephone. Our communities may have started to use e-mail to contact us about our services but are we prepared for the exponential growth that is inevitable as more people not only gain access but more importantly gain familiarity and confidence with the technology. The VS e-guru Dr Costis Toregus often challenges service providers by asking how they would cope if just 1% of their population e-mailed them each week now imagine 10% How would your organisation cope? Chief Executives must anticipate this shift in use of access channels and the associated shift in both expectations and behaviour patterns.
The benefits of electronic communication were made very clear to me during the work on SOLACE think tank on e-government which produced "Sing when you're Winning". The core team met a few times face to face but the wider consultative group never met contributing entirely by e-mail on scoping documents and drafts of the report. The time saved and the benefits gained were immeasurable.
For many councils our efforts to achieve electronic administration are hampered by issues such as identity, security and application availability. However as these issues are resolved our use of on-line and electronic administration will only be limited by our imagination. I consider administration to be distinct from transactions on the grounds of cash value and transfer. A request for a housing repair is administration, a payment of housing rent is a transaction. Again development in this area is constrained at present due to concerns about security and encryption but the potential is enormous.
Taken together there are four categories that summarise the issues to be addressed by Chief Executives. I do not mean this in mechanistic terms and it is not for a Chief Executive to load information on to a web-site. Rather the Chief Executive must identify and react to the cultural impact on the organisation, the community and other stakeholders. The pace at which we work will increase the community will expect faster responses and we may need to entertain more risk if we are to achieve our goals.
e-commerce is an ideal example of how organisations need to react. As yet it has not had a major impact on local government and understandably so given our spending patterns and acute awareness of the need for cost benefit and that we spend public money. However, there are major gains to be achieved and these must prompt us to consider the issues more innovatively. Some councils consider that they are not large enough to benefit from e-commerce in which case perhaps they should work in partnership with others to achieve the potential gains. Others are anxious that systems are not secure. This is a very real concern that needs to be addressed but perhaps a cost benefit approach would justify that small amount of risk. Yet others may lack the necessary expertise but these are now consortia and services available to plug these skills gaps in the organisation.
To conclude we must recognise that e-government is a new and different challenge unlike anything that has gone before. Although it has associated policy and objectives it is not, at its core, a policy driven change. It is a change process that is enabled by technology and is inevitable and it is being driven by both the providers of services (who want to improve service delivery) and the users of services (who will increase their expectations relentlessly). A question that is often asked is whether e-government or Best Value is the bigger challenge. I believe they are complementary and work together we must use e-government to achieve Best Value and apply the principles of Best Value as we endeavour to implement e-government. Either way it is essential that Chief Executives engage in this issue, lead on it, embrace it and make it work to the benefit of their community.