A Librarian's Experience of E-Government
E-Government is essentially about improving service delivery in central and local government. Our customers expect a level of service and access to services, which is effective, efficient and convenient. They want to be able to make contact with government at a time and in a way which fits in with their lives. In order to deliver excellent public services in customer-focused ways we have to use the available technology to its very best advantage.
We are not just talking about the Web when we talk about e-government but of course the Web is a very convenient and accessible means of communication. The latest figures on Web access from the Office for National Statistics  show that 52% of the population have Web access from home compared to 9% for the same period in 1998. For those for whom the Web is not a viable option there is digital TV, SMS (Short Message Service) and more to come.
But I'm a Librarian
My experience in the e-government arena has been while working in a large and diverse local authority department. I began my working life as a very conventional librarian and took the ALA route to chartership. I worked in academic, public, school and special libraries before I reached my current post as Technical Librarian of the Department of Planning, Transport and Economic Strategy of Warwickshire County Council. Coming to this from the academic world I knew my way around the Web but as a user not a creator.
Warwickshire has from its very earliest forays into the Web opted for a devolved model of Web management. There is only one corporate Webmaster with an assistant and all the other work is done within the departments. There is of course IT support for the development of central tools such as our feedback database for dealing with emails submitted via the Web, online payments and the development of online forms.
In my own department we have divisional Webmasters who help to co-ordinate the Web work in their divisions and approve pages for publication. The vast majority of pages are created and maintained by staff in the departments and often these are the staff closest to the area of work covered by the pages. In this way they are the ones to know what needs to be changed. This is not to say that all staff find this easy or that every page is maintained with up-to-the-minute information. What it does mean is that there is no bottleneck created while a Web team creates pages and the staff feel an ownership for the pages they have created.
For a number of years local government has been measuring its progress in using the Web to deliver customer services against a BVPI (Best Value Performance Indicator). This BVPI, no.157, had the target that all services which could be e-enabled should be in place by the end of 2005.
Our approach has always been to create pages and services which meet first and foremost the needs of our customers but also meet government requirements. This way of tackling it has served us well and our score on the BVPI had reached 87% by the end of 2004. Our county council Web site has grown to more than 11,000 pages and receives more than 2 million visitors a year.
Involvement in the Wider Aspects of e-Government
In our department, which is large, inevitably there are times when a team is unable provide someone immediately to create Web pages. In these cases the library will step in. One member of staff in particular has developed the skills to help teams through to a stage where they can take on the maintenance of pages themselves.
In e-government more generally we became involved because the Web delivery is one aspect of a larger e-government project. In the middle of 2004 this was the case with e-planning.
In June 2004 the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) moved the goalposts very slightly. It issued a document called Defining e-government outcomes for 2005 to support the delivery of priority services and national strategy transformation agenda for local authorities in England .
Every time I write about this publication, which is quite often, I have to look up the title as it is not exactly memorable.
This set out 14 areas where we are required to make progress in e-government and 53 specific targets which have become known as Priority Service Outcomes (PSO). The Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) then put some flesh on the bones of this and in its document Priority Outcomes: Explanatory Notes for Practitioners Version 1.0 described in greater detail what the government required us to do. This document is not easy to find but it should be possible to access a copy .
The categories for the PSOs are set out as 'required' which must be in place by the end of 2005 and 'good' which need to be ready by the end of March 2006. 'Excellent' targets were also listed but these will be agreed between authorities and government when the 'good' levels have been reached.
An Example: e-Planning
For my department the major areas we needed to address were planning, road works, public transport information and parking contravention. We highlighted planning and road works as the areas where most work was required to reach these targets.
The target as set out for us by ODPM was to offer online submission of planning applications and the IDeA added to this the explanation that what we attempting to achieve was 'end-to-end automation of the planning ...process.'
As far as the provision of information on planning issues was concerned we had achieved 100% when measured against the BVPI 157. However our site was not interactive, we could not accept applications online and information on current planning applications being considered was produced manually for the Web from an old DOS-based office system.
One of the visions of e-government is that information is delivered to the Web as a spin-off from the office processes and not an extra piece of work. The only way this could be achieved was by replacing the existing systems.
County councils, unlike districts, boroughs and unitary authorities manage a small number of planning applications but each of these can be very complex . They do not deal with domestic planning matters such as the erection of a garage but large-scale applications for the management of waste or the extraction of minerals. The small number handled has been a barrier to installing newer systems as it is very difficult to prove a cost benefit.
Faced with the PSO and a need to improve our Web pages we set to within the library to redesign the planning Web pages but with the support of the planning staff. This was achieved up to a point where, when judged by the ODPM survey, we had the highest score of all the county councils. We had met 15 out of the 21 criteria used to judge the sites.
Local authority planning Web sites were first surveyed in 2003 by a firm of planning consultants, Peter Pendleton and Associates. This review was published as the Pendleton Review and identified 22 criteria for a good planning Web site. The 2003 survey did not look at county council Web provision however we learned that in 2004 we were to be included. We suspected that the results would affect the size of the grant we would receive for planning delivery from the government. Just before Christmas 2004 we learned that this was exactly what the ODPM was considering in a consultation due to end on 28 January 2005.
We were delighted with the result and the Web pages for planning are much improved. However we had only met 15 out of a total of 21 criteria set by Pendleton and much of this is still achieved by 'manual' processes. Greater integration with back office processes is required if we are to achieve true e-government. This is phase two and we have gone out to tender to appoint consultants to help us through identifying and purchasing a system which will integrate with the Web.
There are many librarians involved in e-government projects. I chair a group of information professionals working in local government and many of its members will have been involved in e-government in one way or another. Librarians should be at the forefront as the provision of information is a key element; and that is what we do best.
I do not know if Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science  are still taught but it would be interesting to apply these to e-government. The five laws are:
- Books are for use
- Every reader his or her book
- Every book its reader
- Save the time of the reader
- The library is a growing organism
If we begin to apply these laws to the provision of information to the public and the interactions being offered by e-government they still make a lot of sense.
All the most magnificent e-government technology in the world is worthless if it is not used and if it is not used to deliver to readers or users the information they need. So every reader has the information needed and every piece of information has a reader.
We are always trying as we develop Web pages to make it quicker and easier for users to find their way around and find what they need. And finally we know only too well that an electronic service grows and grows just like the libraries of Ranganathan's day.
We are attempting through e-government to connect our customers with the information they need and that is what every librarian has been doing from the time of Ranganathan and before.
The skills we take for granted as librarians are exactly the skills needed to deliver e-government. E-government without its customers would be a complete waste of time and effort and librarians know all about customers and identifying and meeting their information needs.
At a practical level we understand information architecture. We know that a Web site cannot function if it is not arranged logically. We know that a Web site needs to be indexed and we know that metadata is only really cataloguing. We know that we need to use a controlled vocabulary, put in added terms and perhaps use a thesaurus and subject headings. We are customer-focused and we know what our customers need and what they will and will not use.
A librarian's skill is also in identifying what information customers need even when they are not clear themselves or when they are not communicating it clearly. In my experience librarians tend to be very flexible in their approach to their work. Perhaps this is because anyone who has ever worked on an enquiry desk especially in a public library will never know what the next enquiry may be. They have to be flexible to be able to jump from dealing with one enquiry to another which is probably on a completely different subject and like as not needs very different tools and skills to answer it. Maybe it is this talent as much as anything which should encourage us to transfer our skills to the e-government arena. The Times covered Librarianship in a series called 'Get a job as ...' and listed a degree of flexibility as the first skill for a successful librarian. Is it not this variety which makes library work even in a special library unpredictable and interesting?
Information as an Asset
We deal in information and information is valued today as never before. When the Hawley Committee  produced its report in 1995 it identified for the first time that information is an asset. Those of us who still call ourselves librarians should make it clear that we manage information. In a recent article in Information World Review their first survey of readers' salaries showed that 'only 3.6% of those who defined themselves as Librarians are earning more than £40,000, while 16.3% of Information managers and 52% of Information Directors were earning above that figure.' Is the work of those with information in their job title so very different? I could not say, but I would suggest that the underlying skills are very similar.
I am writing this at the very beginning of 2005 as we wait to see the full impact of the Freedom of Information Act and this is another area where librarians have huge opportunities. The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) in the report from its Freedom of Information Panel to the CILIP Council on 10 December 2003 tells us 'We have the skills -let's use them'.
As librarians and information professionals we must not sell ourselves short. We have the skills needed and the flexibility to use them. We should be there at the forefront of e-government and in other aspects of information management. The recognition of the value of information, its exponential growth and the need to be able to retrieve it quickly and efficiently make any job in information management a challenge. Anyone who has the skills to be able to manage information is invaluable to an organisation and this is not going to change in the foreseeable future. In fact I would anticipate demand for information skills will continue to rise and librarians need to be seen to be involved at every level. E-government is just one area where we can make a difference.
- National Statistics Online - home of official UK statistics http://www.nationalstatistics.gov.uk/
- Defining E-Government Outcomes for 2005 to Support the Delivery of Priority Services & National Strategy Transformation Agenda for Local Authorities in England - Version 1.0 http://www.odpm.gov.uk/pns/pnattach/20040112/1.doc
- e-government: Priority outcomes: explanatory notes for practitioners http://www.idea.gov.uk/transformation/?id=priority_outcomes
- For example, see Warwickshire Couny Council Planning and Development site http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk/planning
- Ranganathan, S. R. 1963. The Five Laws of Library Science. Bombay: Asia Publishing House. 2nd ed. (Ranganathan Series in Library Science; no. 12)
- Information as an asset : the board agenda, The Hawley Committee; a consultative document for chairmen, chief executives and boards of directors developed on behalf of the KPMG IMPACT Programme by a committee under the chairmanship of Dr Robert Hawley, chief executive of Nuclear Electric plc. - London : KPMG, 1995.
- Affiliation of Local Government Information Specialists (ALGIS) http://www.algis.org.uk/