High-tech team empowers regions

28 Nov 2002

Anyone who thinks of e-government as incompetent civil servants struggling to turn on their computers should revisit how local government is undergoing a quiet revolution. The Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) might be saddled with a decidedly old-fashioned acronym, but the work it carries out is cutting edge.

While government ministers spout on about ‘e-hubs’ and the ‘information society’, the employees of LGCSB are the ‘backroom boys’, charged with actually making it happen, at least on a regional level.

“Most of our role is to be an enabler for local authorities to deliver services,” says Board director, Brid Carter as though it was as easy as delivering a letter. The organisation has been around for 27 years, having started out with the remit of buying and upgrading information technology for regional government on a centralised basis. Today, its reach has far extended the role of kitting out offices with computers. This is a unit with advanced technology know-how, customising state-of the art intranet solutions to meet specific needs, enabling local government to interact and play a tangible role in the national e-government strategy. The LGCSB works with other organisations in the sector including the Department of the Environment and Local Government (DOELG) and the National Roads Authority (NRA) to offer integrated solutions.

In 18 months, for example, the board has installed 72 authorities with new financial systems working with the DOELG on resolving business and legal issues; and it is building a robust infrastructure of intranets and implementing radical procurement and online ordering solutions.

Tim Willoughby, assistant director, explains how much of the work has centred on browser-based solutions and crucially extensible markup language (XML). XML is now perceived by the information and communications technology (ICT) industry as the cornerstone for the next generation internet, enabling different applications to talk to each other.

“For instance, we have a contacts management system, eDirect,” says Willoughby, “which breaks components down into XML and routes the information to the relevant desktops.”

Much of the work is carried out in what the world of private enterprise would describe as B2B (business-to-business) solutions. One example was developed to enable online procurement for the hundreds of NRA tenders, which involve vast amounts of minute data covering every aspect of the contract. LGCSB developed Conval, short for contract evaluation, a sophisticated procurement solution where every item is costed and incorporated into an overall tender cost and control framework.

With this kind of project in mind, it will come as little surprise to learn that the majority of the board’s 90 employees are what Willoughby describes as ‘serious IT professionals’. Part of the reason for this is because the days of buying off-the-shelf solutions to meet an organisation’s individual needs are long gone. While package solutions meet the needs of individual business areas, bringing them together into a holistic integrated solution has proved difficult. What makes this a feasible approach is that the same basic system can be replicated in up to 88 local authorities, thus providing economies of scale.

“We came up with a lot of interoperability issues,” says Carter, about the pre-packaged solutions. “Until the industry builds a framework for information technology and communications solutions based around XML, it frequently makes sense for us to build our own rather than buy off-the-shelf.” One solution, for example the I-Plan system, provides a minutiae of information about the built environment, while an emerging prototype brings all aspects of geographically related information together, everything from water quality to litter. Third party companies simply could not afford to build such tailor-made solutions.

None of this is cheap. Most of the LGCSB’s budget comes from local authorities, a source that could be under threat with the imminent round of public spending cutbacks. “In the last couple of years significant investment has been available, but we are very conscious of maximising use of the funding,” says Carter. “With the cuts, there could be a detrimental effect. There is still a lot to implement and a lot of work to be done on browser technologies.”

So far, it is the speed and flexibility of the organisation that has ensured the money is well spent. “We build prototype solutions in three months rather than wait three years only to discover that the market has moved on,” says Willoughby.

Another part of the challenge is the people who have to use the technology. There has been a large training push and now a large proportion of the 32,000 local authority employees have completed the European Computer Driving Licence training course. When you consider the size of the user-base and that the LGCSB supports and delivers to 16,000 desktops sitting in local authority offices, you will begin to understand why ICT vendors and solution companies have the organisation at the top of their call lists.

Like government departments, the board has dealt with the massive influx of sales pitches by taking the procurement process online though the e-tender website (www.etenders.gov.ie). But, this is not always beneficial as Willoughby explains. “The site is a victim of its own success because there are now many more applications to go through as the channel is easier to access,” he says. Tough economic times have added to the weight of applications regardless of the suitability of the vendor for the task.
“Companies that are struggling will throw their hooks into every pond,” says Willoughby.

Because Carter and Willoughby (along with the rest of LGCSB staff) are on the front line of ICT developments and spend more time than most government employees listening to the pitches and sales puff of technology companies, they are both involved in vetting the consortiums that have applied to set up the Reach e-broker infrastructure. It makes sense, seeing as how the project will inevitably interact with the solutions that LGCSB has developed and is supplying to local authorities.

Neither of them, however, will give any clues as to the successful bidder, although they hinted that the process of picking the right one might be more drawn out than was originally planned. Prototype offerings are to be tried and tested before the final decision is made.

While this might delay a crucial component in Ireland’s e-government strategy, we can at least take comfort from the fact that here at last is one organisation that understands exactly what technologies are required to make e-government work.