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Reaching out

A Yorkshire council has a ground-breaking way for residents to connect to local authorities, writes Michael Cross

Thursday March 3, 2005
The Guardian

When a 13-year-old girl in a Yorkshire village realised she was pregnant, she didn't have anyone to talk with face to face. But she was able to get private professional advice via video at a terminal within walking distance of her home. The terminals, called Citizen Link kiosks, allow people in remoter parts of East Riding, Yorkshire, to speak in person to experts at a range of organisations, including the council, law firms, NHS staff and the police.

Citizen Link is one of the successes of a remarkable wave of investment over the past five years into electronic systems connecting people with their local authorities. It is particularly remarkable for cutting across boundaries between government and other public services.

Unless you live in East Riding, it is unlikely that your council has anything as good. Research published this week shows a gulf between the best and the worst councils offering electronic public services. With central funding for e-government about to dry up, there are fears that the gulf could become permanent.

Despite its historic name, East Riding is a relatively young authority, a so-called "unitary", taking on the functions of an English county and a district. It covers 1,000 square miles and contains 171 towns and villages.

Citizen Link was created to meet the challenge of bringing a council "customer service officer" within 3km of every citizen. "We run 583 services and want to ensure that 90% of inquiries are answered at the first point of contact," says Brigette Giles, customer services network manager.

The first Citizen Link terminal opened in 2002; there are now 19 in brick-built booths, plus others in hospitals and mobile libraries.

Anyone can walk into a Citizen Link booth, activating a two-way video call to the council's virtual contact centre. A customer service officer opens the door remotely and deals with the inquiry or directs it to the right department or outside service.

Inside the kiosk, the only IT visible is the screen, though there is a scanner in a drawer for collecting images of documents.

Apart from the council, the service links Citizens Advice bureaux, firms of legal aid solicitors, Humberside police, Jobcentre Plus, local hospitals and the NHS patient advisory and liaison service. Joining up agencies makes sense, says Giles, because most people do not know the difference between a council and a health authority, for example.

The Pensions Service, run by central government, is due to come on board in the next few weeks. "The Inland Revenue has also shown an interest," Giles says. "We're also liaising with the probation service and prison service."

Giles is surprised by the volume of use: "We expected to be like the fire service, we're there if you need us." Kiosks are open around the clock, although they get very little use after 8pm.

Citizen Link is not the only groundbreaking e-government service run by the council. Its My East Riding web portal has won awards for the way it personalises public services - residents can log in to find out how the council is responding to a specific complaint about a broken streetlight. Darryl Stephenson, the council's leader, says the whole point of e-government is to improve service: "We don't look at new technology, we look at how we can serve the customer better."

An authoritative annual survey of local authority websites published this week suggests councils investing in e-government tend to be good at other things. But there is a large gap between the best and the worst.

Better Connected, conducted every year by SocITM, an association of public sector IT managers, tested each of the UK's 468 local authority websites and ranked them into four categories:

Transactional websites These are "accessible, complete, thoughtful and coherent". They allow users to carry out many types of transactions, such as paying fees and booking facilities, and also join up with other government services. SocITM found 38 in this category, up from 23 last year.

Content plus These provide very useful content and offer some self-service features, such as links to library catalogues or planning applications. There are an encouraging 226 in this category.

Content These provide "useful content and encourage some interaction", but no direct transactions. SocITM found 180 at this level.

Promotional Only 23 local authorities are still at the level of merely publishing brochures on the web, perhaps with an A-Z list of services. Three years ago, one third of councils were at this stage.

The progress of the past few years reflects a burst of funding from central government, both in the form of flat-rate subsidies and grants for specific outstanding projects. Citizen Link, for example, was originally funded by grants from the Legal Services Commission, the regional development agency and the Lord Chancellor's Department.

In just a year's time, specific funding for local e-government is due to come to an end. From then on, projects will have to pay their own way. In the case of advanced high technology, this could be difficult, Stephenson says.

"There is no financial business case for video links," he says. But this does not mean they should not be provided: "If we have one girl come in and make a statement about child abuse that she otherwise would not have done, it is worth a video link being in that village."

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