A farewell to form-filling as the state goes electronic

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The Independent Online
Ministers are to make pen-pushing and post office queues things of the past by introducing "electronic government".

They plan a technological revolution to cut down form-filling and eventually to enable people to collect government allowances and benefits 24 hours a day from cash-point machines. The technology will allow people to file tax returns, pay vehicle duty or apply for licences at the touch of a button.

The revolution, designed to use the latest information technology to speed up Whitehall and make it "more user-friendly and approachable", is to be discussed at a special, private Cabinet Office seminar next week, and laid out in a White Paper at the end of the year. The first pilot project will begin within the next few weeks.

David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is in charge of the project, told the Independent on Sunday: "This will be a massive reform of the system of government, started by looking at things from the citizen's point of view.

"When people think of government, they think of forms and queues. We must put an end to that. People can already bank at their convenience 24 hours a day. Why should not they be able to deal with officialdom just as easily?"

Dr Clark, who flies today to Canada and the United States to exchange experiences in bringing information technology into government, says his department's projections show that a quarter of all Britons' dealings with officialdom could be conducted electronically within the next 5 years.

The first pilot project, to be launched in several parts of the country, is in electronic form-filling. People becoming self-employed will be invited to fill in a single form by computer, which will then be sent automatically to all the government departments they need to notify - the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Department of Social Security: until recently five separate forms had to be filled out and sent to the three departments.

Ministers plan to extend this first example nationwide by the end of the year and then move on to other forms. In future, people will be able to notify all the relevant authorities in a single operation when they move house, leave school, begin employment or have to register a birth or a death. Income tax and VAT forms could also be filed electronically.

The software will be designed to make the forms as simple as possible, with help-boxes providing step-by-step information on how to fill them in. They will also be "idiot-proof", warning users when they fail to fill in a box or give an obviously wrong answer, greatly cutting down the number of forms that would have to be sent back.

There would be no need any longer to go to post offices, taking insurance and MOT certificates, when applying for a vehicle licence. The details would already be registered on computers, and people could apply electronically and pay by credit card. The same techniques are expected for television licences, and could even extend to renewing passports.

Applications could also be made through digital television, from living rooms and at electronic kiosks that ministers plan to introduce in town halls, supermarkets and petrol stations. They stress that in all cases, people would still have the option of dealing with officialdom on paper or in person, as at present.

The key to the new revolution is a government plan to introduce an "electronic signature" which would make documents legally binding, as written signatures do at present. The technology is still being finalised, but it will be based on a personalised smart card, expected to be unveiled at the end of the year. Similar cards could let people draw benefits and allowances from cash-point machines at any time of the day or night.

The Cabinet Office believes that the revolution could spell the end of traditional post offices. In future, these could be dominated by computer screens where business would be conducted electronically, leaving counter staff to answer queries or serve people who want to stick to the old ways.

The Government also accepts that the revolution would be likely to cost jobs. But it believes that if it pioneers the technology, Britain will gain business and employment by exporting it worldwide.