Now that NHS Direct Online, part of Prime Minister Tony Blair's drive for connected government and online services, has been extended, more patients can speak to a call-centre nurse or log on to a web site for medical information.
But as central government promotes online delivery of such services, local authorities, for many the first governmental port of call, are lagging behind. The reason: senior management has too narrow-minded a view of IT.
The Society of Information Technology Management (Socitm) last week published its 13th annual survey of IT trends in local government. It highlighted a lack of understanding and vision as the biggest constraint on delivery of effective IT.
More than 400 IT managers and policy officers participated in the survey. Of these 40 per cent say senior council officers lack sufficient understanding of IT. Only half considered IT important for modernising public services. Some 39 per cent said IT was important to 'some extent', while 10 per cent said IT was not specifically important.
Money is not the inhibiting factor - local authorities are expected to spend £1.4 billion on IT next year - and Socitm concedes that IT managers themselves are partly to blame for the failure to deliver electronic services.
When asked which services could be revolutionised by IT, respondents listed 'planning applications' as the most exciting opportunity, followed by 'providing information' and council tax payment. Not exactly visionary, in the view of report author Brian Westcott.
"It's the job of IT managers to push innovation through because they know what it is capable of. They are too reactive and wait to be told to do things. They should have a vision," he says.
And here lies the problem: IT managers expect to be told what to do by senior management, but those council officers suffer from a fatal lack of interest and belief in IT.
Most chief executives might have a PC on their desks, but they still make a joke of IT. They just don't want to get to grips with it because of its techie image,' Westcott says.
One IT strategy manager, who wished to remain anonymous, backs Westcott. "IT is still seen as a cost rather than as an investment," he says.
A chief executive's refusal to become involved in technology sends an authority's IT department into a spiral of decline. Cut off from developing services for the council, the department ends up focusing on mundane tasks such as looking after PCs.
The situation has been accentuated by a recent trend towards small management teams of five people that exclude the IT manager. "If you withdraw into your shell you become even more irrelevant," says Westcott.
Dane Wright, information manager at Brent Council, blames 'organisational inertia' for the lack of initiative. But he adds that local authorities have come to realise they must now deal with increasing demand for electronic access to services.
Socitm says 45 per cent of contacts between local authorities and their citizens are electronic (mostly by telephone). Within five years this is expected to grow to 64 per cent through use of email and the Internet.
As such, survey respondents have accorded greater importance to call centres, the Internet and email than they did two years ago.
"Things are starting to change because of the lead central government has taken. Councils are starting to move a lot faster. In many ways, from callcentres to posting documents on the Internet, local government is ahead of central government," says Wright. "As demand increases because of digital television and Internet access over mobile phones, we have to be ready for it."
Socitm says there are many ways for authorities to galvanise local authority IT and online services: the creation of a plan for IT involving senior authority members; educating those executives who still don't understand IT, through secondments, for example; and outsourcing routine aspects of the IT department's role such as PC support.
In meeting the challenge of delivering electronic services, local authorities must think in more visionary terms. IT departments are willing to act. But they need a stimulating statement of direction from an IT-centric senior management.
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