Second site Access the pages of power

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FOR PROOF that government proliferates like escaped rhododendrons if nobody keeps an eye on it, you need only take a look around the cat's cradle of sites with "" domain names. Although you might imagine this to be one of the drabber regions of the Internet, Britain's government sites look more like the motley assortment of liveries displayed on Britain's privatised railway network. They vary considerably in quality, sophistication and style.

At the top end of the market, conspiracy theorists may experience an agreeable frisson of paranoia at the Foreign and Common-wealth Office site's resemblance to the BBC News site. As well as looking similar, the site behaves like a news service. This site has embraced the idea of the Web as a 24-hour medium, rather than an electronic means of publishing brochures. It also provides traditional FCO advice, such as where not to go on holiday.

The Cabinet Office site is concerned with immediacy, too, with ticker tape-style headlines and dispatches about various government activities. Its design is bright and accessible, but it won't realise its potential as the government gateway site until it is promoted with a more appealing name.

A sense of humour not generally associated with the Department of Social Security is apparent in the use of images of Monopoly players' markers as buttons on the DSS pensions guide. Less charming is the Benefits Agency page's declaration that its role is "to support Ministers' vision for social security, encouraging and helping into work those who are able and to provide an efficient administration for others". In that order: first, supporting ministers; second getting people off the books; last and least, providing benefits.

The Home Office site also lays a questionable policy on the line, with a link to the text of the Asylum Bill. All recent Acts of Parliament are available on-line too, via the Her Majesty's Stationery Office site, the virtual public-sector ghost of the privatised HMSO. These comprise the significant textual substance of government made available to the public via the Net. Other elements of government are less effectively delivered. The Highways Agency lives up to stereotype with a glacially slow page delivery, while the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency site appears to be defunct. One of the dullest sites is that of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - the so-called "Ministry of Fun". Its primitive pages make a poor shop window for the media ministry's grasp of new media.

"Modernising Government", a White Paper available on-line, notes that as departments have all done their own thing with information technology, the systems need to be integrated. The network of sites could do with a "portal" to guide visitors, and show how the branches of government are related. What is wanted is "joined-up government", says the White Paper. In grown-up language, links.

The reality check for Britain's "information age government" is to be found at the Passport Agency site. The passport issuing system is near collapse: a message admits that some applications are taking six weeks to process - two months, actually, judging by first- hand evidence available to this column - and that concerned applicants are finding it difficult to reach the Agency by fax or phone. Here's the perfect opportunity for a digital department to take customer service into the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Passport Agency does not have e-mail. If you want to trace your application, you are advised to send a letter. Perhaps you should pop one of the free Internet access CD-ROMs from Tesco or Dixons into the envelope while you're at it. And what do you think is getting the blame for the shambles? You guessed it: a new computer system.

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