Home on the web
When it comes to getting local government online, Westmeath County Council is one of the leading local authorities in the country. The county council’s website is quite comprehensive, as one would expect. But the local authority has gone one step further and has put its housing services online. Visitors to the website can download housing related forms and fill them in online to track their progress
According to Kevin Monaghan, Westmeath County Council’s head of information services, the service was developed as a proof of concept project with assistance from the Information Society Commission. “We picked housing as it was identified as a life event by the Oasis agency and because a lot of that falls under local government. We did an analysis of housing and we found that there are 44 business areas in local authority housing and 22 of those are public facing. The idea was that we would develop the concept and put it online on our own website, but with a view to it being usable by other local authorities and also with a view to it being integrated into the e-forms service that Reach Services has running.”
According to Monaghan, the local authority completely re-engineered the content of its forms and online users see exactly the same system as the housing staff.
Because the service predates Reach Services, users for now must apply to Westmeath County Council for a user ID and password if they wish to use the online service. “We are talking to the Local Government Computer Services Board and our intention is that the forms could be ported over to Reach Services and we would use its authentication engine,” says Monaghan.
Those who choose not to register can still use the service. Otherwise, a number of services are available to anonymous users. These include a form downloading service and a What Am I Entitled To feature. Members of the public answer straightforward questions about their circumstances and are then informed what housing benefits they may have a right to. This has the potential to remove a considerable burden from counter staff.
According to Monaghan, uptake of the online service has been slow but a lot of the forms coming into the housing department have been downloaded. “Online form filling can be a bit tedious,” he admits. “However, there is certainly a lot of use of online form filling in the assisted channel. We have one-stop-shops in Athlone, Castlepollard, Kilbeggan and Mullingar.” Staff there will guide visitors through the process of filling in the online forms.
Strategy for e-procurement
The potential for local government to make substantial savings using e-procurement has been highlighted by a pilot scheme involving four local authorities.
Following the publication of a review of e-procurement by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Dublin City, Cork City, Cork County and Kerry County Councils decided to draft a local authority sector e-procurement strategy, according to Paul Russell, senior executive officer in charge of the Dublin City Council Procurement Unit.
“This draft would be in advance of consultants being appointed by the Government to develop a local government strategy,” says Russell. “We would then have the draft in place to give to the consultants and this would dovetail with the national strategy.”
The main objectives of the draft strategy are to reduce costs, improve procurement efficiency and encourage the adoption of e-commerce technologies in the local authority environment.
To this end the four local authorities are piloting electronic tendering and electronic submissions.
“The problem with local authorities is that every single department procures and tenders its own goods,” explains Catherine Carmody, the local authorities e-procurement project manager. “And some departments, such as housing, may only tender once a year so they aren’t used to it and can forget the rules governing publication in the Official Journal of the European Communities. So in conjunction with First Derivatives, a software house in Newry, we have developed a Wizard. Whereas it used to take two days to prepare a tender, now it only takes 20 minutes.”
According to Carmody, users of the online application are asked a series of questions, such as value of the contract and so on, and are then told if it exceeds the threshold for advertising internationally. At the end of the process, the user clicks on a button and the tender is sent directly to the e-tenders website and to the Official Journal of the European Communities in Luxembourg.
“Most local authorities are using the e-Tenders website,” says Carmody. “We have estimated that if all the local authorities in the country were to use it they could save well in excess of €3m per year.”
Russell agrees that major savings are possible: “Since October of this year we are only putting small ads in the newspapers and referring interested parties to the e-Tenders site. I estimate that by doing so we can save €100,000 per annum on space costs alone at current prices.” That saving does not take into account other expenses, such as preparing and posting tender documents.
Reaction to this move has been surprisingly muted. “We have a list of 2,700 vendors,” says Russell. “We wrote to them all telling them about this. I set up a helpline in expectation to handle the enquiries and we only got three calls and they were to notify us of incorrect addresses.”
When it comes to receiving submissions, local authorities can streamline their efforts by accepting them electronically. According to Russell, Dublin County Council is piloting a system called e-Hub. Several suppliers have been invited to participate in the pilot. They register with the system and whenever Dublin County Council issues a request for quotation (RFQ), those vendors are notified by email. They then respond with their offer and the system generates a matrix of the items requested and the quotes received with the cheapest highlighted in red.
A winning website
At the recent Excellence in e-Government Websites awards ceremony, Kerry County Council took home the award for Best Local Authority Website. This is becoming something of a habit for Mick Harkin, online services manager at Kerry County Council. In August of this year the same website won the Local Government Computer Services Board/Piercom Internet Services Excellence Award 2002 for the Best Local Authority Website in Ireland category.
The roots of the website go back about three years. “I started here to develop an intranet,” recalls Harkin. “From that we had regular meetings and the idea of putting up a public website for the County Council came up. Kerry is a very rural area and people can drive long distances to get to offices just to pick up a form. We talked to the public to find out what would be the most useful information to put on the site. We identified planning, environment, jobs and motor tax information as well as downloadable forms as the content. From that we started working on the look and feel.”
Rather than go for a big bang approach, Harkin and his team put up information as it became available. “We got the planning information up so that people could search the planning lists before the main site was active,” says Harkin. Similarly, job vacancies were available early.
In its present form, the site is quite comprehensive with minutes of council meetings, details of road closures, official notices and ads available at the click of a mouse button. There are also direct links to other Kerry-related websites such as Listowel.ie, Tralee.ie and so on.
“We have jazzed it up with a kids area and we encourage families to use it,” says Harkin. “Children can learn about the environment and we run competitions for schools via the site.”
Approximately 2,500 people have registered with the site and statistics show that it receives 2,000 unique visitors per week. “The most popular services would be planning, followed by jobs,” says Harkin.
Future plans include bringing payment services online and introducing Geographical Information Services (GIS). The site already boasts a comprehensive set of maps of the county, but Harkin hopes to integrate GIS with other areas, such as planning. “Users will be able to click on a map to see what planning applications have been made in an area. Or they can register their interest in a locality and receive an email whenever an application is submitted,” he concludes.
The principles of e-government go beyond simply putting government services on the internet. In many ways it is about re-engineering government services so that instead of citizens having to deal with multiple agencies for a single life event, they deal with one contact point. This is the principle behind the e-broker, which is due to become available next year.
It is also the principle behind Donegal County Council’s new integrated services centres, of which there are now three. The first, at Carndonagh, opened in June and was followed by another in Milford. The most recent office, in Letterkenny, opened on 11 November and the County Council hopes to open a centre in Dunloe before Christmas, according to Tony Kieran, project manager for Donegal Integrated Services.
“The offices are doing business in a joined-up way,” says Kieran. “They provide information on all public services. If you walk into Letterkenny, for instance, there is a single front desk rather than the different desks for different services that a typical office would have had in the past.”
The Integrated Service Centres, however, are only a foretaste of how government, both local and national, will interact with the public.
“We are studying to see how a contact centre or the organisation of contact centres could deliver services in a post-Public Service Broker (PSB) environment and how they would differ from the services we deliver today,” Kieran explains. “We are looking at what public services are out there and how suitable they are for delivery through contact centres and how they can be modified to make them suitable. Then we need to know what sort of organisation would be best: a single large call centre or a network of distributed centres?”
According to Kieran, the research has been ongoing for the last six months or so and a tender has been issued to find the company to execute the study, do demand analysis and assess suitability of services. While the study is national, Donegal is heading it up.
“We are working with partners such as the North Western Health Board, FÁS and Comhairle,” says Kieran. “There are other big service deliverers nationally that aren’t involved, such as the Department of Agriculture and the Revenue. We have been asked to make a recommendation of how contact centres can deliver public services so we need to talk to these other agencies, then we need to look at what services from that group are suitable for delivery through contact centres using the PSB.”
Once the report is in, it will be up to the Government to make a decision. However, Donegal County Council hopes to pilot a contact centre as part of the research sometime in the next six to nine months. “In pilot mode we will set up a small controlled effort with experienced staff from different agencies,” says Kieran.
Park-and-dial with mobile metres
Astute observers of Dublin’s pay-and-display machines may have noticed that in recent months a second, blue button has been added to these machines. These are for an interesting experiment in e-government, or in this case, m-government. When it rolls out in January 2003, Dubliners will have the option of paying for parking in the city centre via their mobile phone.
“We started looking at the possibility of offering motorists in Dublin an alternative payment mechanism about two years ago,” explains Paul McCarthy, parking enforcement officer, Dublin City Council. “We looked at smart cards and payment via mobile phones. We decided that a smart card exclusively for paying parking fees was not viable so we started pursuing the mobile phone option.”
After advertising for expressions of interest, the City Council chose Irish company It’s Mobile to work with pay-and-display machine vendor Schlumberger to develop an integrated application.
The City Council began a pilot test a few months ago. Participants who wish to buy parking via dial must register in advance and must be post-paid customers of either Vodafone or O2. When they park their car, they dial a number printed on the pay-and-display machine and when prompted, enter the machine’s four-digit identifier code using the phone’s keypad. “They then hang up and a message is sent from the server to the machine and the motorist selects how much parking they want by pushing the blue button for each euro’s worth of parking they want,” says Lynch. The amount is then invoiced either to the motorist’s credit card or phone bill.
According to Lynch, the pilot has been a great success with 95pc of those who signed up and used it once returning to use it again. “We displayed the system at the last Holiday Show in the RDS and we were quite taken aback by the level of interest right across the age spectrum,” he says.
“The system will be of particular interest to business users who need to visit the city centre and park on the street. Usually to claim expenses they have to collect all of their pay-and-display tickets but this system will provide them with a monthly invoice, eliminating the hassle factor and encouraging compliance,” he continues.
A public trial will begin in early 2003. “We’d run that for, say, six months and see if there is a demand for service,” says Lynch. “If that demand is there we will look to extending it out into other tariff zones. We wouldn’t envisage that m-commerce transactions would replace cash payment as the preferred option but we would hope that over a five-year time period that 25pc of transactions would be done over a mobile phone.”