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e-innovation nation

Necessity is the mother of invention, but money is a pretty good auntie and with this in mind, the government has just awarded £6m to fund local councils' bright ideas for improving public services with IT. The cash will pay for work on everything from online cemeteries to community WiMax.

Impressively, the 12 winning "e-innovation" ideas were picked from 280 proposals. This implies that two-thirds of the councils in England are nurturing brainwaves. More likely, given the state of local government finance, many submissions were desperate attempts to balance books by tapping a new source of Whitehall funding.

However, the ideas that got through suggest a culture of innovative risk-taking at odds with our normal image of what goes on inside council IT departments.

One project, led by Tamworth in Staffordshire, will investigate a way through the impasse of distrust and confusion about government agencies sharing citizens' personal data. The idea is for individuals to "self-administer" their data.

Bristol meanwhile, plans to develop templates for blogs, e-petitions and other tools to help residents mount community campaigns. The London borough of Camden wants to involve citizens in the planning of new homes and public facilities with the help of virtual reality.

The online cemeteries idea comes from Manchester, where the council plans to digitise its crumbling Victorian burial registers for the benefit of genealogists and historians.

A consortium of authorities in London aims to investigate whether the next generation wireless data network technology, WiMax, can help mobile workers on their daily rounds.

Another consortium plans a multi-pronged investigation of open source software. It will create an open source academy to help share knowledge on the costs and benefits. Members should have plenty of raw material to contribute: lead authority Birmingham plans to convert 10% of its desktop systems to open source. No doubt IT companies on both sides of the debate will want to put their own spin on the academy's work.

Government support for local e-innovation is welcome, with one caveat: recipients should not be able to tick a "no publicity" box. Experience with past programmes suggests that enthusiasm for publicity tends to evaporate when the lessons learned are negative. Much of the fault lies with central government, which has to maintain a fiction that every project it funds is a resounding success, even if all the evidence points otherwise.

This is wrong, for two reasons. One is that negative information can be valuable in its own right - if, for example, Manchester runs into trouble digitising its registers, other proprietors of Victorian cemeteries will want to know why. Also, publicising negative results may prevent mistakes being repeated a few years down the track.

The whole point of government funding for R&D is to allow innovators to test ideas that would be too risky for their own resources. If 100% of the projects funded by the e-innovation turn out to be worthwhile, then government has picked the wrong projects to fund.

Special Report for the Guardian Online Supplement, written by Michael Cross

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