Local governments, determined to hold a future fully-privatized Telstra's feet to the fire over services to rural areas, have developed their own blueprint for assisting regional councils to improve service delivery through the use of ICT, and especially high-speed broadband.
The Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) last week delivered a draft of its Better Rural Services report to the federal government and has since held discussions with a number of departments. It plans to submit a final report to the Australian Government Information Management Office in mid-October.
ALGA President Cr Paul Bell says he is confident the report will be given full consideration by the Australian Government.
Developed over a six month period in collaboration with state and territory associations, the blueprint is a plan for the enhanced delivery of broadband and electronic services to councils across Australia.
In the face of studies that show that Australia has done well when it comes to IT innovation but fallen well short of the mark when it comes to broadband, and Telstra management's confession last month that underinvestment in its network had severely limited access to internationally competitive bandwidth and download speeds, it demands equitable high speed internet access for rural areas.
"Building and maintaining sustainable, competitive and world-class information and communications technology (ICT) systems across Australia is a key issue identified by the Ministerial Online Council. This year's State of the Regions Report is focussing on telecommunications and will be a solid contribution to this debate," Cr Bell says.
The result of a project funded by the Australian government, the Better Rural Services report Is essentially a plea for additional Australian government funding to assist smaller rural councils. Cr. Bell, addressing the United Cities and Local Governments Asia-Pacific Regional Section (UCLG ASPAC) Conference in April, said the plan was to build on the successful work that has been undertaken at the "whole of state" level and develop a national framework to ensure that any new funding is used effectively.
"Rural councils need skills, resources and access to communications infrastructure if they are to successfully make their services available online. The benefit to residents would be substantial - reducing the barriers created by their relative isolation from major urban centres," he said.
ALGA has identified key principles which need to be considered when trying to assist these councils become active participants in e-government.
1)There needs to be a focus on improving service delivery through comprehensive training and providing access to "back-office" systems and applications.
2) These councils need more comprehensive solutions as it is harder for rural councils to retain skilled staff and fund new ICT initiatives
3) Providing a broadband access solution to rural councils will - in itself - not produce sufficient demand to cover costs of the service without on-going subsidies. Broadband solutions must be provided at the regional level in remote areas and include all key stakeholders.
4) Services and applications provided to rural councils should be developed within a national framework, managed at the state level, and delivered at the regional level.
5) Supporting infrastructure for rural programs will be required at the national and state levels.
6) Councils should be provided with a "menu" of services and applications allowing them to offer solutions that best suit the needs of their communities.
7) Existing services and programs developed by "best practice" councils and groups of councils should be analyzed to identify what services and applications could be delivered nationally to rural councils.
8) A national framework needs to be developed to identify core services and applications.
9) A further national framework needs to be developed to identify national, state and regional level infrastructure required to support services and applications required by rural councils.
The nine principles were the foundation of the strategy paper.
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