So Many Targets, So Little Time: E-government, Privacy and the Local Government Modernization Agenda.

AUTHOR
Sara Wilford

ABSTRACT

The growth of e-government has been rapid particularly in developed countries and yet the success and extent of the services being provided varies greatly from fully interactive web-sites in which consumers can pay council tax bills and arrange services, to simple web-pages that merely provide contact details. In the UK, Central government is continuing its push towards universal access to online services, but there are concerns that insufficient resources may have been made available to local government organizations to enable them to fulfill this obligation. It is also likely that variation in e-government service provision may be dependent on the priorities of individual local government organizations and that in some instances; organizations may merely pay lip service to central government policies, or may take short-cuts in other areas in order to comply with centrally directed priorities.

The UK governments’ requirement that local authorities should continually review and assess performance, involves Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA), target setting, league tables and voluntary competitive initiatives such as the Beacon Council Scheme. This is designed to encourage innovation and improvement in service provision and the dissemination of learning. The government’s aim is to encourage innovation and improvement in service provision, and access to e-government services is just one element of the Local Government Modernization Agenda (LGMA). This means that local authorities are under constant pressure to deliver a variety of high quality services, and to provide evidence of continuing innovation and high performance

As each new initiative requires the allocation of resources, civil liberties issues may be overlooked in the drive towards meeting targets. This paper discusses how issues such as privacy may not be considered sufficiently important to policy makers when faced with what they see as the ‘bigger picture’. However, privacy may be ignored at our peril and its loss viewed with concern. Privacy of personal information must be considered both prior to and during the implementation of any services that governments wish to provide, requiring a ‘built in’ rather than ‘bolted on’ approach.

The adage ‘too little, too late’ when applied to privacy protection may result in loss of freedom to choose how services are accessed. Such access may be dependent on individuals being forced to make choices about their personal information, which could ultimately result in a loss of privacy. Once our privacy is lost, it may prove to be an almost impossible task to regain. This paper therefore examines the nature and importance of privacy, and considers the potential problems that managers and policy makers may face if the provision of services and meeting government targets is prioritized without consideration of privacy issues.

Personal information to ensure identification and verification of individuals is of course vital to ensure security of systems and appropriateness of access. However, such information may provide government organizations with opportunities to utilize this information for crime prevention, detection or surveillance purposes; that may impact upon privacy and the privacy expectations of citizens. Public policy considers the needs of both the citizen and the state, but when faced with apparent threats from terrorism or crime, the temptation is to utilise new technologies to provide greater levels of security.

In a culture that is performance measurement driven, standardization is important to enable distinctions to be drawn between the best and worst performing services within local authorities, and which is achieved through the reporting of results, clearly defined data trails and tightly controlled budgets. Policies that promote the citizen’s right to choose at the same time as requiring standardized reporting of performance may result in practical end-user issues being overlooked in an attempt to juggle many different and sometimes conflicting central government initiatives.

A ‘one size fits all’ philosophy is not always appropriate when delivering services, and e-government provision is no exception. This paper further considers the attractiveness to policy makers of new technologies that appear to allow individuals greater choice in how services are accessed. However, e-government is being rolled out by individual authorities rather than according to a national template, and choices may be constrained by the priorities of individual authorities. This means that bridging the gap between information rich and information poor may still not be achieved.

This paper examines e-government implementation within a local authority context as just one of several resource intensive directives from central government, and considers that public sector management faces increasing and conflicting pressures in an ever more target driven environment. If these pressures become too great, resources too limited, and targets too prescriptive, privacy and choice, rather than being enhanced by innovation, may turn out to be the hidden victims of the LGMA.

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