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In March 1997, the Government published the Modernising Government white paper and launched the e-Government agenda. This set out a wide-ranging programme for improving public services using IT.
It was hoped that by 2008 all government services would be capable of being delivered electronically. The financial means to achieve this were not kept under wraps for long. The Spending Review 2000 set aside £350m to support councils in meeting the 100 per cent electronic services delivery target. Subsequently, the compliance date was brought forward to 2005. In December 2001, the Society of Information Technology Management reported that "28 per cent of services are now e-enabled against the 100 per cent target for 2005".
Against this background of figures and targets, the achievements of various pioneering councils are indicative of what is taking place more generally across the country.
Daventry District Council installed facilities to enable council tenants to pay rent online through the Housing Services website using credit and debit cards. The council is actively planning to extend this facility to council tax payments and other services.
Providing state-of-the-art one-stop centres offering a wide range of public services at a single enquiry point was the object of a partnership between Leeds City Council and ICL, a British software manufacturer. It has produced a 25 per cent increase in the number of callers handled and achieved a customer satisfaction exit survey rate of 96 per cent. Efficiency savings of £450,000 a year are expected.
This is not going unnoticed abroad. Shortly before the recent local elections, German weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported on the Pathfinder Election Project, which St Albans City and District Council was completing. This permitted electronic voting at various kiosks situated in diverse areas across the city, including bars. It cost £1m and was developed by BT and Oracle. Similar projects were prepared by 29 other towns in time for polling day on 2 May 2002.
The challenges represented by so much investment in an area that raises so many legal issues are daunting. They are exacerbated as much by the novelty and variety of technologies available as by administrative practices that can sometimes be at variance with contemporary legal norms that emphasise transparency and privacy.
There is a great contrast between the gleaming voting kiosks in St Albans' hip pubs and the electoral registers available for public inspection in every local authority. Until recently, these registers were the sole source of information for marketing companies. But current regulations have been found wanting and the position has changed.
In October 2001, Judge Kay found against the defendant council in R Wakefield Metropolitan Borough Council (2) Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Robertson (2001). He decided that if the council continued to supply the claimant's personal details to commercial organisations without his permission, this would offend the provisions of the Directive on Data Protection as well as Article 8 and Protocol 1 Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. On the basis of this decision, the Electoral Commission has advised local authorities to withdraw their electoral registers from sale.
While St Albans demonstrates one new way, Wakefield shows the limits of conventional processes. No one is prepared to make the registers available to marketing companies if the persons named have not expressly given their consent. However, this is not a facility provided for under current electoral law, and Government provisions are awaited on this subject.
There is an increasing scale of complexity in most projects. At the most elementary level, all councils are now represented online through their websites. There are plans to introduce e-voting at a national level by 2006. Leeds City Council is pioneering an e-procurement project through which tenders are advertised and applied for online. Much more complex still are IT projects funded through public-private finance agreements, where, for example, a private firm would run all the IT responsibilities of a local authority, sometimes at a considerable distance from the local area. In between the various layers of these changing roles, legal issues crop up at frequent intervals.
It may seem overly cautious to be concerned about cyber-squatting in the context of local authority websites when they are not being run for profit and do not have the same intellectual property value as the brand names of commercial enterprises. But when the difference between a site ending with '.gov.uk' and '.com' is that the latter is for sale on the open market and could be used to confuse or defraud local authority tenants or ratepayers, the importance of this issue becomes very clear.
In May 2001, the National Arbitration Forum agreed to resolve a dispute with the agreement of Glasgow City Council and the owner of the domain name glasgowcitycouncil.com. The forum agreed that the domain name registered by the respondent was identical or confusingly similar to the trademark or servicemark in which the complainant council had rights. It ordered that the domain name be transferred to the council.
Outsourcing local authority requirements will have implications for employees and machines alike. Improving and even maintaining service levels is not as automatic as agreeing targets and penalty clauses in a contract. The liabilities of the authority and the IT service provider have to be strictly accounted for. The risks inherent in processing personal data, whether at common law or under statute, have to be allocated.
If computers are transferred to a new corporate identity, the accompanying software may have to be relicensed with the software proprietor. IT departments that have not been distinguished by rigid asset management practices may find this aspect particularly painful. If the software licences cannot be found, it may be because none were purchased and issued in the first place. If this fact comes to the attention of the Business Software Alliance (BSA) or a software proprietor, the council at fault could face embarrassing publicity. One council paid dearly for 470 unlicensed copies of Microsoft Office 97. Given that the BSA currently offers a reward of up to £10,000 for information leading either to a successful settlement or prosecution, no council should leave this to chance.
The promise held out by the e-Government agenda was a tactical one for the Government. Bringing local government closer to the person in the street helps to build strong local democracy. A predominantly young, dynamic and professional section of the electorate, who are IT-literate and very familiar with the internet, cannot fail to be attracted to this initiative. However, the success of this strategy is by no means assured.
Wakefield shows that real friction exists between privacy norms and data-processing methods. Those who assume that citizens will happily relinquish control of their personal details may be disappointed. Advocates of council processes that share personal details between different departments, and even other councils or private bodies, may be especially chagrined. The many individuals who are zealous in protecting their privacy do not welcome this degree of data proliferation.
Sometimes it is more than a digital divide that separates proponents of the IT revolution from those for whom the e-Government agenda was intended to serve most. To achieve a compromise between these cultural opposites, it seems no less likely that a complementary revolution, a 'legal' revolution, will have to take place, to deliver the norms and safeguard the human rights that a modern society needs.
Padraig O'Briain is the assistant editor of specialist products at Lawtel
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