The public sector has rarely been known as the most forward looking, cutting-edge part of government, but this year, that is changing. There's a strong body of opinion out there that government could - and should - be leading the way on mobile technology.
The municipal metro network debate is the most public and obvious sign of this. Why can't local authorities pay for infrastructure that gets shared with local people, so the government gets cheap connectivity for its workers, and the community gets cheap connectivity to empower people and regenerate business?
But that's just one part of a surge of interest in technology in local government. Other signs include moves to allow council workers and citizens to access services from mobile devices.
Municipal wireless is like platform shoes?
It's possible to be quite cynical about this, and see it as just another round of fashion, a recurring urge to support big network projects. "Everything goes in buying cycles, because we forget how awful it was the last time around - like platform shoes," says Ian Keene, analyst at Gartner, talking at NetEvents, a network industry gathering in Germany last week.
"Maybe local governments are only building their own wireless networks, because they've forgotten what a pain it is to own your own network. It's fifteen years since they owned their own cables. All those people have retired by now." The people that are still around are ready to own their own networks, without seeing the downside, he says.
Of course, it could be that wireless networks are different, since the infrastructure cost is lower. And the number of users and potential uses is much higher, since there are a lot more mobile devices out there than fixed devices.
Local authorities are also being clever about whether to actually own and support infrastructure. In Brighton and many other places, for instance, potential WiMax networks are being rolled out by third parties who only need the local authority as a large customer to support the first phase.
But, whatever the funding issues of the infrastructure, do local authorities really need wireless networks to do their jobs? A new report argues that they do.
But what about the services?
"The time is ripe to mobilise the front-line of service deliverers, and roll-out mobile access to the full range of local services," say James MacGregor and Michael Cross, in Cutting the Wires a report from the New Local Government Network Research Unit, that talks about the reasons why mobile working is such a hot topic in local authorities.
"Mobile IT has the potential to allow local authority staff to do their jobs regardless of location," says MacGregor, "and to spend more time working to the needs of local people."
By letting staff work wherever they are, mobile working can make services more responsive. For instance, a public health inspector visiting a site can have access to all information about the building, and the person operating there. Seeing all past complaints and their result, he or she can make a better response much more quickly. Without mobile access, the job would require them to return to the office to make enquirires, or phone back, tying up another staff member.
Once the job is done, the efficiency boost is obvious. The response is quicker - and the worker sees the benefit too, since paperwork only needs to be filled out once.
With staff handling tasks outside the office, authorities can save on office space, and support home working, says MacGregor.
"There will be social advantages as well," says Adrian Mepham, partner account manager for Microsoft UK, which has been promoting the use of PDAs, for instance with the Thames Valley Police, where more than 70 are in use. "Flexible working opens doors for people who may presently be excluded," he says, pointing out that people with small families or single mothers may be able to work productively if the technology can come to them.
Mobile means less travelling?
It is perhaps counter-intuitive, but mobile working may actually mean less travelling, and less congestion, since people no longer have to travel to the office simply to access the applications there. If people don't have to travel, or can avoid rush hour, then the environment and people's quality of life can benefit significantly, says Mepham.
Clients are mobile too
But it's not just the local authority staff that benefit - local authorities can also deliver mobile services to their clients. "Mobile phones are more evenly distributed than internet access and digital TV across socio-economic groups," points out MacGregor. "There is a bias towards young people but this is exactly the demographic that local authorities find difficult to engage in local democracy and to consult on services."
Texting your council about local services - perhaps including a picture of the vandalism or pothole you want to complain about - could be an effective way to get people involved and get response.
"Lewishams Cam2Web project is a mobile solution that enables councillors, officers, and local people to report environmental problems (like graffiti and fly-tipping) by sending the council pictures taken on their mobile phones through specialised custom software," says MacGregor. "This approach makes efficiency gains, but further, the council is constructing a valuable resource of real-time neighbourhood level data that is helping politicians to develop a closer understand their areas."
Older people might feel excluded by this, but it seems likely that mobiles are going to be used increasingly, and for more tasks, across all generations, so this problem will be reduced, says MacGregor.
"Local authorities need to embrace, extend, and evangelise mobile IT," he says.
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