I propose to take Questions Nos. 25, 34, 101 and 216 together.
The Better Local Government modernisation programme has brought significant benefits to local government. These include: constitutional recognition and guaranteed local elections; enhanced levels of funding; strengthened political and management structures; and an updated legal framework as well as an efficiency agenda focused on improved corporate planning, IT, human resources and customer service. Updated financial management systems, facilitating better financial management and planning, have also been introduced, and a new initiative to improve service standards with an extended range of performance indicators was launched this year.
Local government modernisation also provides an enhanced role for elected members in local authority policy formulation and review, in partnership with representatives of the social partners, through the establishment of strategic policy committees, SPCs. I intend to assist the spread of best practice in respect of SPCs through provision of policy focused training for elected members when the current strand of induction training for new councillors is completed. I will also be stressing the importance of executive policy support for the committees in my discussions with local authority management.
The role of the locally elected representative has been further strengthened by the creation of a single mandate for councillors from the recent local elections and also by the improved financial support framework and better training-information opportunities. Additionally, local authorities have a lead role and wider sphere of influence in the county-city development board system aimed at a more integrated approach to economic, social and cultural development. The CDBs allow elected members a direct input into the services provided by other public bodies at local level.
A number of initiatives, implemented as part of the modernisation programme, are specifically centred on improved service provision. These include, for example: the decentralisation of services by local authorities to area level with €31 million in support from my Department for a one-stop-shop programme; substantial investment in e-local government, including €9.8 million from my Department under the initiatives fund focused on the use of technology to improve efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery, particularly in an on-line context; and the requirement on local authorities to produce customer action plans.
In addition, as part of quality customer service, local authorities have progressively taken action, as the opportunity has arisen, to provide better facilities for private discussions with customers. This has been particularly so where local authorities are replacing or modernising their offices or decentralising their services to the local area level through one-stop-shops.
My predecessor established a customer services group in May 2003 with the objective of developing and improving customer service across the local government sector. Arising from the group's work local authorities are obliged from 2004 onwards publicly to report their performance against 42 service indicators across their principal functions. I believe that councillors, as the boards of directors of local authorities, have a central and pivotal role in making this initiative work. They will be able to compare the performance of their authorityvis-à-vis other local authorities and ensure that necessary corrective actions are taken in good time. The customer services group will also shortly begin preparing guidelines for local authorities on customer surveys, customer consultation, complaints, appeals and redress systems. These guidelines, which will be presented to me in the new year, will take account of best practice, including relevant guidance issued by the Ombudsman.
It is my aim, over the lifetime of the Government, to build on progress to date and, in particular, to promote improvements in performance and in service delivery by local authorities to their communities.