Public Services Management: Getting in a Spin: Cathy Aitchison reports on the growing use of electronic information in the community by local authorities

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WITH the public expecting higher levels of service from their local authority, the need for accessible, up-to-date information is becoming increasingly important. But how are councils coping with the demand, and at what cost?

Recently, there has been a growth of interest in videotex and other electronic database systems. These allow users to call up any subject from the name of their local councillor, to when their dustbins will be emptied.

Last month Oxfordshire County Council launched a new network of outdoor community information points (CiPs) in partnership with a private sector company, CiP Info. Oxfordshire is well established in the electronic information field; their Oxcis database - a videotex system - has 21 points in libraries and other sites across the county, and will form the core of the information on the CiPs.

Mike Biddulph of Oxfordshire County Council says that the partnership with CiP Info will bring a better service at a considerable cost saving: 'It takes us, overnight almost, to far greater numbers of people . . . and it presents them with the information they're used to getting from us in a much better form, with much higher quality.' 100 units will be installed over the next three years, and will run in addition to the Oxcis outlets.

Instead of calling up a central database, the CiPs use a stand-alone PC, which is updated and monitored using dedicated telephone lines. Although still based on a videotex system, the CiPs use enhanced graphics.

CiP Info maintain and update the information, with their revenue coming from advertising - in addition to the Oxcis information, the CiPs carry a range of commercial pages, such as details of local hotels, shops and businesses. The outside of the units also provide advertising sites, although the long-term effects of outdoor use on the CiPs remain unknown.

Berkshire County Council tried installing a number of outdoor information points in shopping centres, but as information manager Clair Drever explains, 'they proved to be a challenge to vandals.' Because of the way the information was updated, there were also cost implications: 'They were dial-up, and the shopping mall had to pay for the privilege of accessing our database.'

Berkshire are in the process of changing to a more advanced system which will give better quality graphics and be cheaper to run. The council has negotiated sponsorship from Thames Valley Enterprises (the local TEC), and is liaising with outside organisations including Kayes catalogue and the DSS.

Around 60 local authorities are members of Spin, the Society of Public Information Networks. Spin was originally known as the Local Authorities Videotex Association - a change of name which reflects the widening of activity in this field.

David Hardwick, of Rotherham Borough Council and chairman of Spin, says: 'People's expectations have risen, and we've got to try and keep pace.' Spin's guide to starting out urges local authorities to have a clear idea of their aims before signing up with a supplier, asking: 'What are you in the business of providing and why?'

Leicestershire County Council, a relative newcomer to electronic systems, has been running a pilot project in the north west of the county since 1991. Feedback has shown that while the public like and use the system, they are not necessarily calling up council information: heading the list were the clubs and societies pages, followed by employment information, local events and the 'green pages', which contain environmental and recycling information.

Manager Dave Thompson does not see this as a problem: 'People don't think 'I want council information', they think 'I want to know how to recycle my refuse'.' Leicestershire now plans to extend the systems across the county, in partnership with CiP Info.

Publicising jobs and trying to generate the area's economy are among the main objectives of the Dearne Valley Initiative, a joint project between Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham local authorities, which is being funded by a City Challenge grant. Mr Hardwick believes that one of the key features of this project is the co-operation between the three authorities.

The idea of linking systems, or providing wider information, is only attractive if it is cost effective. The Central Office of Information (COI) is carrying out a trial in four counties, including Oxfordshire, to make available Government information such as population statistics, Foreign Office advice to travellers, information on the council tax and House of Commons business.

A different approach which is gaining ground is the multimedia system, which offers a mixture of sound, pictures and text. In Cornwall, the county's computer services department has designed Compas, a multimedia system which goes on trial in September as part of an experimental 'one-stop shop', housing a variety of council information in a single location.

Nottingham City Council is about to launch its first multimedia point in the City Information Centre. According to Mike McCambridge, a multimedia system was more flexible; one of the features which influenced the choice was the ease with which non- alphabetical scripts can be reproduced - an important consideration in an area with a high population of Asian language speakers.

Project Barbara is a European Commission project which the Highland Regional Council (HRC) is running in partnership with Greece, Ireland and Germany, to look at ways of developing broadband communications.

'A lot of people in the rural communities up here live up to an hour from the nearest council office . . . we were looking at ways of equalising the level of service,' says Douglas Maclean, Director of Information Technology at HRC.

Broadband offers not only the kind of facilities available on a telephone line, but also live, interactive video. The HRC team have researched what benefits people would like from an electronic system - heading the list was access to distance learning and library materials.

With an interactive system, a user would be able to talk to a tutor live on video, choose a book by calling up its cover on the screen, or watch a video clip before deciding whether to order it.

Mr Maclean believes the results of these trials could lead to further developments. 'The aim of the work that the European Commission is funding is to get broadband communications throughout Europe - that means to people's doors.'

(Photograph omitted)