Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Local Government Modernisation Programme.
Question 9: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he is satisfied with the use by local authorities of information technology and the Internet to assist clients; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9491/06]
A key objective of the local government modernisation programme is to enhance the quality of service to customers. Information technologies are an important means of providing easier access to services, supplying information on the wide range of local authority activities and speeding up service delivery.
Substantial investment has been made in e-local government and the use of on-line technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery. Local authority websites are updated on a regular basis with news, information, publications and tender and job opportunities. Application forms are generally available on these sites. A total of 27 local authorities have on-line payment systems in place across 79 different payment services, 51 planning authorities have on-line access to planning decisions, updated nightly, and more than 20 authorities have facilities in place to enable citizens to check on-line whether they are on the electoral register. Local authorities make extensive use of the e-tenders procurement portal and were early adopters of this system. The flagship motor tax on-line system is available through every local authority site and on-line access to library services is available throughout the country.
Internally, local authorities make extensive use of information technology in the management of key functions such as finance, housing, water services and roads, with the overall objective of enhancing efficiencies in the delivery of services to their customers. A number of authorities are now using information technology based systems to better manage contacts with customers. Some also have impressive systems for informing local authority members.
While much has been achieved, I am anxious that momentum is maintained and further progress made. In this context, local authorities will continue to expand the use of information technology in the delivery of enhanced customer services in consultation with my Department and the local government computer services board.
I agree with Deputy Deenihan that the intention should be to make local government more client oriented. When I became Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, one of my primary objectives was to improve access to local authorities and the level of courtesy in client services. That agenda should be informed by best practice and local authorities have done impressive work in this area.
I welcome the increasingly efficient use local authorities make of the Internet. When the Minister entered office, his Department's website was advertising grants which had been abolished a year earlier. The Department's services have since improved, however.
In light of longer commute times and the fact that people are less able to visit local authority offices during office hours, I welcome the increasing use of information technology and the Minister's commitment to expand services throughout the country.
I thank Deputy O'Dowd for that. I am aware he shares my opinion that we can make local government better and more cost effective. Extraordinary progress has been made in this area by South Dublin County Council under its current county manager. I want to see that standard in place elsewhere, so that, for example, planning files can be interrogated at any time of the day or night, and hope that other local authorities will be similarly proactive. Some of the smaller local authorities have also improved significantly. We now have to find out how the group in the middle is performing.
The local government computer services board receives a substantial amount of money from local authorities but an overall strategy seems to be lacking. Has the Minister considered the use of e-procurement globally? For example, in Britain, where the local authority budget is £27 billion, savings of 10% have been made through that country's impressive e-procurement system. I urge the Minister to consider that in the context of the efficiencies he mentioned earlier.
With regard to staffing, the website of Kildare County Council's planning system gets approximately 1,000 hits per week. Given that these people might otherwise visit the council's offices, significant savings can be made through the use of information technology. However, an overall strategy should be driven by the Department rather than by individual local authorities. Does the Minister have a vision for the future of local government or is this planning left to local authorities?
Deputy Murphy made a valid point in that there is nothing more liberating for a local authority than a good website because the potential savings are incredible. For example, millions of euro have been saved through the on-line motor taxation system. Local authorities can benefit by reducing expenditure on staff members and it is in everybody's interest at local level to be more proactive in this area. However, I do not want a gap to develop between those with access to the Internet and those without. Local authorities should spend some of the savings they make from e-technology on better counter services.
Significant savings have been made through e-procurement, although more can probably be done. I would like to see more use made of on-line electoral registers because I share the concerns of many in this House on this issue. I am committed to pressing local authorities to be even more ambitious in this regard because it is of mutual benefit to citizens and local authorities.