Turning legislation into action

9 Nov 2005

Back in 1975 the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) was set up to assist regional authorities in deriving the best possible benefits from IT. Working within a framework defined by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government its realm has always consisted of 34 counties and cities, but its remit has changed almost beyond recognition.

In the early days its role was largely based around the regional deployment and management of IT equipment that was in its infancy; today it delivers and develops cutting-edge technologies that reflect the new age of e-government. Service delivery is the name of the game, encompassing all the latest channels available.

Tim Willoughby, assistant director at the LGCSB, is matter-of-fact about the huge transformation that has occurred. “Technology has changed. Local government has changed, which means we have had to change,” he says. “Broadband, local authority metropolitan area networks [MANs], the adoption of wireless, the increase in security threats – we have to keep up with all of these things or we might as well forget about being here.”

The one consistent aim of the LGCSB has been toward standardisation across all the authorities. “Having a shared vision for local government is still the ultimate aim,” says Willoughby. “It’s about turning legislation into action. Most of what we’re doing is about understanding what central government legislation is doing and trying to shape it into something that makes sense for local government at a grassroots level.”

The LGCSB has developed increasingly strong ties with central government; the names of director Brid Carter and Willoughby are frequently to be found on committees that are helping shape the Government’s national agenda on modernisation. “It’s about bringing local authority views into central government and the reverse, bringing central government thinking to the regions,” he explains.

One of the biggest parts it can play in the national agenda is its contribution to the roll out of broadband. A firm believer in the principle that content drives adoption, the LGCSB has done more than most. Online project Mobhaile, is about citizens serving themselves, providing an opportunity for groups of people to harness the power of technology for the benefit of their own communities.

Live in seven authorities Mobhaile gives community groups the publishing and content management tools to set up and maintain their own websites free of charge.

At a time when public sector expenditure on new technologies is coming under increasing scrutiny, the LGCSB methodology should stand it in good stead. Before it rolls out any applications it looks at the processes that exist and where technology might deliver benefits.

In the case of Mobhaile it also sets about researching exactly what citizens might want from local portals and have continued with a stage-by-stage evaluation. At the outset a needs analysis survey of community and voluntary groups was carried out with National University of Ireland, Maynooth. It undertook an ethnographic study, exploring the different factors that determine how different groups and communities might interact with technology.

“We wanted to find out their needs and wishes not just for online services but for general computing,” says Willoughby. “Another group was used to look at website design, finding out what sort of things it wanted. And the most recent piece was a study of 200 people, looking at how they use their sites and their feelings on the interaction.”

Recognising the diverse online requirements that disparate group might require, the LGSCB has three flavours of Mobhaile. The tool it uses for more complex authoring is Microsoft’s SharePoint, while an open source ‘lite’ version is also now available.

“We have identified three different needs for portals,” explains Willoughby. “One is in the collaboration workspace. There can be a hefty requirement for documentation with some of the bigger clubs and organisations that want a site and they use SharePoint. Someone else might only want a brochureware site. SharePoint is too heavy so we have gone with an open source solution that comes with loads of templates. The intermediate one is a bit of brochureware and some collaboration. Again, SharePoint does that job as well.”

The LGCSB is pragmatic about finding solutions that meet its needs and is happy to mix and match its Microsoft tools with other offerings. “We found something that matched exactly what we wanted to do,” says Willoughby of the open source software. “It costs nothing to download and juts a little to integrate and put out there.”

One of the challenges is to roll Mobhaile out to more local authorities. “To grow it needs to relate the provision of content at a local level to the broadband uptake,” says Willoughby. “That’s where the most work needs to be done. If you want people to take up broadband and appreciate the services, you have to provide them with local content.”

Bringing the local authorities along on its journey remains core to the LGCSB. This extends beyond Mobhaile to its intranet service that runs across the whole of local government. Built with SharePoint, it was rolled out by the LGCSB to help local authorities both in terms of internal processes and service delivery to their citizens.

The idea was to create a standardised platform where new innovations can easily be deployed, some developed and driven by the LGCSB, others by IT departments at the grassroots level. “There is a healthy discussion and a sharing of ideas and codes. We are currently rolling out newer versions of expenses and leave software, so it’s always ongoing,” says Willoughby.

That said, some authorities make more of the intranet than others, depending on the degree of buy-in. The reality is that the difference between a good intranet and a bad intranet may not be technology, it may be the management.

“It’s a strategic change as much as anything,” says Willoughby, “and I’m pleased to say that a lot of the management teams are driving it hard.”

Going forward, another big decision will be what happens when the LGCSB’s existing contract with Microsoft comes to an end. It has worked closely with Microsoft since it signed a three-year deal in 2003 for a sector-wide subscription programme for an extensive range of its software.

Observers are waiting to see which way the LGCSB will go, at a time when there’s a growing drive across the EU for governments to look closely to open source as a cost-saving approach, but Willoughby would not be drawn: “We’re nearing the end of the evaluation. Microsoft’s deal concludes in January but we’re hoping to get a decision well in advance so we don’t have a period of uncertainty.”

By Ian Campbell