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Public Domain

Michael Cross
Thursday December 16, 2004
The Guardian

To mark the season of goodwill, I've been stimulating the local economy, paying large sums to the national exchequer and providing much needed employment to young Australians in London. Yes, I've spent the past week in the pub.

My lifestyle choice follows an authoritative benefits-identification study, which I commissioned from a local brewery. Of course the study identified downsides, too - to my liver, my family life and to my nose when, after seven pints, I engage strangers in conversations about Iraq. However, such "key risks" can be consigned to the small print.

As a piece of research, my study has all the validity of a North Korean opinion poll. I'm in good company, though. The methodology, which I'll call AlotBsol (always look on the bright side of life), is borrowed from the government's exercise in demonstrating the benefits of e-delivery of public services.

"Authoritative studies" published last week by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister show that English councils could gain £1.7bn a year if they put in place ideas and systems developed by six centrally-funded e-government projects.

What they won't do is put £1.7bn in taxpayers' pockets. Of that sum, only £56m will be hard cash from increased revenues: e-savvy councils are better at collecting taxes and service fees. Of the rest, £306m will be cost savings, for example in making field workers more productive by giving them handheld computers. It is up to councils whether they use these improvements to do more with the same staff or to "realise" the savings by cutting jobs.

To date, most have chosen the non-confrontational option.

The vast bulk of the gains identified, £1.34bn, are more in the category of AlotBsol. They include such outcomes as more satisfied citizens, better staff morale, higher take-up of state benefits and even "transparency of process". All good things. Satisfied citizens are more likely to report an abandoned car before it is torched; happy staff are less likely to go sick. Encouraging people to claim benefits means that more money goes into the local economy, even if it's only the pub. The difficult bit is how to turn these external rewards into an internal business case for buying IT.

This is the bane of all e-government programmes. Unless you're dealing ruthlessly with a basket case of an agency, the internal business case doesn't add up, so hardly anyone bothers writing one.

The local government national projects team, which commissioned the studies, deserves credit for trying. If the result is to encourage more councils to take up its products and processes rather than trying to re-invent them 300 times, the effort will be worthwhile.

Most authorities, however, will continue to invest in e-government for the reasons they have always done. Either because they are told to, or as an act of faith that the outcome will be worth the expense and risk up front. A bit like lunchtime drinking, really.

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