Government champion leads forces of technology

12th May 2000 at 01:00
HILARY Douglas might look like an unassuming civil servant, but she is also a champion - an Information Age Government Champion, to be precise.

She is one of 36 senior officials, headed by "e-envoy" Alex Allan, from central and local government departments and agencies charged with meeting deadlines for making public services available on-line and ensuring technology is used to increase efficiency.

Beyond that, Ms Douglas, the Department for Education and Employment's director of personnel and support services, says the champions will make sure that departments work together better and "deliver services that have citizens' needs in mind" rather than the department's needs.

The need for such co-operation and "customer focus" is greater than ever. For example, both are essential to achieving the Government's aim of developing a website (dubbed "") that would act as a one-stop shop for information about training. This information would have to come from a number of departments, quangos and local authorities.

Ms Douglas concedes that it will be a challenge to overcome civil servants' tendency to guard their own turf. But she insists that innovations such as a secure network linking all civil servants will help "joined-up government" to become a reality.

She hopes to spur DFEE staff to think more about their purpose. "We're here to deliver better education and employment prospects for every citizen in the country and everything we do ought to be focused on that."

Ms Douglas says technology has huge potential to make information and services more accessible, but there is long way yet to go.

"We're having to learn rapidly to become more sophisticated. A few years ago people were excited about simply getting things up on the web, but it was done in a fairly disorganised fashion. We're having to think much more carefully about how information is presented so the person using itcan navigate through it easily," she says.

To help drag the department into the information age, both new and existing staff are being offered training. DFEE has just launched a "learning gateway" on its internal network listing details of courses. It will also link up with the new University for Industry and offer office learning zones where staff can study.

On-line learning is a far cry from the technology of 1973, when Ms Douglas joined the civil service as a graduate. She recalls that her induction included a trip to Darlington to see "The Computer" - a massive mainframe that crunched pupil-enrolment data.

Now, Ms Douglas says, all staff have access to e-mail and the Internet. She says a recent e-mail failure made her realise just how crucial e-mail has become.

The department's system even allows top officials to give a video address to staff on their PC,

a more personal touch than a mass e-mail, despite the Orwellian overtones.

Secondments, particularly to local education authorities, are another element of the DFEE's bid to improve staff development, along with encouraging more to volunteer as school governors or pupil mentors, for example.

Outsiders are being invited in as well and there is a programme to encourage middle and senior managers from ethnic minorities. One example is Dr Ranjit Arora, Bradford College's head of multicultural education and research and director of the race relations unit, who has joined the department part-time for six months as a policy manager on teaching supply and training.

But perhaps the most radical change being attempted is a drive to break down the civil service's hierarchical nature. The DFEE is using theatre workshops to show staff that using authority is not the best way to get the best outcome, and that junior staff can make valuable contributions.

Information Age Government Champions:

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