Local E-Government in Northern Ireland
In July 1998 the UK government set out its plans to transform local government in its White paper Modern Local Government – in Touch with the People. Its vision was to establish a new dynamic partnership that would provide ‘integrated, efficient and effective services, which are accessible, citizen focused, seamless and transparent’. Local government in Northern Ireland was significantly different from its counterparts in the rest of the UK and from that in the Republic of Ireland in that it was characterised by division and struggle over the national question. However, in the Local Government Act of 2000, there was a strong emphasis on articulating and developing a vision for the community to be reached through extensive dialogue and consultation. ALANI (Association for Local Authorities for Northern Ireland), which had existed for seventeen years without full Council representation, and without the support of some of the main parties, was replaced in 2001. In 2001, NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association) was established and by contrast had all Council and all party support. Mechanisms and arrangements for dialogue between the two tiers of government, local and central, are dissimilar to those pertaining elsewhere in that they are considerably less developed. However, the modernisation agenda impacts the Local Government sector equally and the ongoing Review of Public Administration is the context in which they are now attempting to develop.
While £350 million had been allocated to Local Government Online funding, in Northern Ireland Local Government is considered to be ‘lagging behind’ by 2004 in terms of e-Government strategy, development and funding . According to Heather Moorhead, Chief Executive of NILGA in June of 2004 only five of the twenty-six councils allowed citizens to perform full transactions on line. In addition to this she stated that:
“ Overall, these results (NILGA Survey of NI Council Websites) suggest that councils are each placing a different priority upon eGovernment and are each at a different stage in eGovernment adoption. The truth is that most Councils are developing their eGovernment strategies in isolation.” (Agreeing an eGovernment Vision and Strategy for Local Government in Northern Ireland)
Lack of funding and co-ordination are perceived to have been the key problem and through the summer of 2004 local government in Northern Ireland sought to address the development of e-enabled Councils by developing an eGovernment Vision. This agreed document focuses on ‘service provision’ where citizens are provided:
“access to key services when, where and how they want and in a manner that maximises the efficiency, effectiveness and equality of service provision”. .
Throughout the document the citizen is interpreted as the ‘customer’, but there is a vision strand on ‘Empowering the whole community to get involved’ in line with the modernising programmes emphasis on participation and consultation. The Vision document states that the councils must: - Assist in making government information easier to access - Promote the provision of affordable internet and email to all citizens - Ensure eGovernment developments are in line with the Councils equality schemes - Use e-techologies to facilitate public consultation and debate - Market online services and promote the uptake of services - Ensure customers trust and feel secure using the new technology.
While these aims, at this point, are aspirational only, the vision document itself indicates that in the Northern Ireland context, the modernising government’s impact on local councils is that they will in the future emphasise e-enabled service provision, with an openness towards, rather than a strong emphasis on, customer participation through increasing use of ICTs.