A self-made success for Mayo

8 May 2007

Life in Mayo County Council has been made easier for all since the implementation of its exemplary self-service pre-planning system.

The council has a proven track record in providing online services. Last year it won the Accessibility Award at the Irish eGovernment Awards.

This involved making most of the council’s documents available online so people can access them without having to make the trek to the council offices. Rick Love, IS project leader of the web team for Mayo County Council, explains that although the initiative is geared towards people with disabilities it actually benefits everybody.

“It’s not access information as such but it’s making available information accessible to people without them having to leave their homes. We’re trying to get as many of our big documents as possible available online.”

The jewel in the crown of Mayo County Council’s raft of e-government initiatives is its self-service pre-planning system (SSPS). The system is available on the council website and allows users to draw their proposed development site boundary on an online map and receive an instant report about council and government policies that might impact on the proposed developments.

The interface allows users to view a map of the county and navigate to their own site area. Using a drawing tool, the user can then draw the boundary of their site. A report is created and users can view and print this out.

This service cuts out waiting times and trips to the council offices as users can get preliminary data relating to their development straight away and be better prepared for subsequent planning meetings.

Love explains the genesis of the SSPS system. “The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did a big planning pilot in the summer of 2005. There were several councils that participated and everyone did different things. We did about five different projects and that was one of our big projects, which we did in partnership with Donegal County Council.

“We got together and used the code base from G-plan from the Local Government Computer Services Board and we got that extended to what you can see online, where you can actually draw your site and get the reports back.

The council did a deal with the company it outsourced to where it is now reselling the system on to other local authorities, says Love. “You’ll see that being rolled out nationally, or to a large number of local authorities anyway, in the near future.”

The popularity of the system has resulted in Mayo County Council being invited to present it at the European Information Society Conference in Finland in April.

The council also facilitates a number of payment options on its site, for council rates, rates and water charges as well as dog and litter fines. It plans to revamp the payment services this year.

“What we currently have does the job, but we want to go a lot further with the payment options. There are two big changes: we want to go more towards an online banking model where we’d have an accounts system and we also want to increase the number of payments and tie in forms to payments.

“One of the things we’re looking at is doing planning commencement notices online. The form itself is quite small and there’s a small payment. There’s also the WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] payment. We’re looking at a lot of those little ones and that’s partly why we want to redo the payment engine.”

Another ace in Mayo County Council’s deck when it comes to e-government includes the provision of a search facility for planning applications. “We were one of the first councils to have all our documents uploaded,” says Love. “All our documents are scanned in from the planning applications and they are all available online.”

Making council services available online has multiple benefits, says Love. Not only does it save citizens effort by removing the need to make trips to the council offices or request forms over the phone, it also eliminates data entry from the council’s perspective, thereby freeing up time for council workers to focus on other areas of council business. For example, after the planning applications were put online, phone calls to the council’s planning section dropped by around 80pc.

“Those things have tangible benefits,” says Love. “As the website has gained in popularity we have much fewer requests than a few years ago for people to post out forms and so on.”

Mayo County Council’s IT team did most of the work in rolling out these initiatives itself. It outsourced implementation of the SSPS system but had the specifications vigorously prepared and was very hands-on in its rollout.

“We hold it up as a model: if you are going to outsource stuff this is the way to go,” remarks Love. “We sat down and did a very detailed spec ourselves first. We knew exactly what we wanted so when we went to the suppliers it really sped up the process. A lot of people go to the consultants first with a vague notion of what they want to do, meaning there’s this whole scoping and specification phase they have to go through with the consultants. By leapfrogging that we sped up the entire process.”

Rollout of a complex system like SSPS took a relatively short nine months from start to finish, but Love claims it would have been done in five months save for the fact they had to change consultants halfway through.

“Our main goal is to put as many services online as possible, whatever that means for each service. If a service is complicated it might just mean putting the form up, but for others we’ll see if we can go the whole hog and put up as much as possible so people don’t even need to get dressed [to avail of it],” concludes Love.

By Niall Byrne