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People must come first in e-government

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The key to local government modernisation is not in the IT, it is in the people. IT is the central element of updating services, but it cannot be considered in isolation: the people running the services and the people using the services must come first.

So says Paul Croft, head of SOLACE, the representative body for senior managers working in local government and chief executive of Purbeck district council.

Speaking today at the Government Computing 2004 conference in London, He argued there are huge societal gains to be made, if technology is used properly, but he cautioned that any IT project that starts off by focusing on the benefits it can deliver will flounder: "We need to set the debate about e-government in the bigger picture. If we don't do that, the technology benefits can end up being a mirage."

Internally, the first steps are creating the right environment within the council, and developing the people and their capacity to implement any change. Once the people within the council know what they want to accomplish, and have the skills they need to do so, then, and only then, should councils worry about delivering the benefits to the local population.

But it is not just an internal issue: to connect with the communities they serve, local governments need to understand the kinds of technologies people are willing to use. John Thornton, head of e-Government IDeA, says the mobile channel is currently the least well served, and probably the technology used by the largest percentage of the population. Croft thinks mobile phones will bridge the digital divide.

Texts are already used in some areas to remind GCSE candidates about their exams dates, to send appointments to residents and, most famously, to pay the congesiton charge. Thornton says that this proves mobile phones are a really good method of collecting payments. The next trick, is figuring out how to use mobile phones to deliver other services.

"We need to start by employing seven-year-olds to help us understand how the texting thing works," Croft said. ®

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