A vision of Whitehall on the Net

Hi-tech responses to public needs will radically change how we are governed, writes David Walker
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The Independent Online
The formal responsibilities of Dr David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, are to chair an ancient ducal council and to appoint magistrates in the counties of Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester. Oh yes, and he is also masterminding a revolution in the Government's use of information technology.

If that sounds schizophrenic, it is. It points towards the difficulties this government, like its predecessor, is going to have fomenting its "big vision" of computer-led change in the delivery of public services. The problems are not really to do with the machines, networks, data flows or software. They are not even to do with confidentiality or with how to wean taxpayers and benefit-receivers on to electronic forms of cash.

The problem is - witness the anachronism of the title - within the government machine itself. An IT-rational government would already have done away with separate departments for income tax, National Insurance and social security; the boundary between central and local government would look radically different, too.

It was Tony Blair who said the point of reform, including IT solutions, is to deepen trust between government and the governed. Better relations between citizens and their state is the theme of a white paper due to be launched with fanfare, probably in the spring.

When, just before the Parliamentary recess, Dr Clark appeared before the new backbench Public Administration Committee, apart from being ribbed about his meaningless title, he used the occasion to set forth Labour's promise that public service was no longer to be second best. Users were to come first. Government offices were to stay open later, open earlier - start mirroring the way real people live their lives. Offices were to become smart, adapting their operations to people's home and work patterns. And the key was to be new technology.

Labour is said to accept there was a lot of "good stuff" in the Tories' prospectus for the electronic delivery of services published last autumn under the title Government.Direct (available on CD-Rom, except mine would not boot, proving yet again that IT that is not idiot-proof will quickly find itself in the hands of idiots).

What Labour is adding to Tory enthusiasm for new kit is "vision", meaning that desire to use technology to rebalance the relationship of citizens and the state. In this vision, technology - hole-in-the-wall machines, smart cards, online information from government sources, electronic signatures and the rest - are intended to "set a new direction in the administrative relations of the government and the public".

On line, information will be made available where people want it; in their offices or at home. Electronic forms make government more efficient by keeping everything on the same medium. Instead of having to wait for the postman to push a piece of official paper through the letter box the public can expect instant responses to queries and applications. The Cabinet Office Central IT Unit waxes lyrical about pushing back the boundaries of access.

If people don't have PCs at home, they will still be in reach of public access terminals provided by British Telecom in public places (libraries, post offices) or soon-to-arrive digital interactive television. Citizens Advice Bureaux are already gearing up to provide terminal access in their offices.

The Cabinet Office is currently negotiating with two firms on the production of electronic signature cards - plastic issued by the government carrying a personal identification code that would then replace a written signature on electronic forms.

Alternatively, an official PIN might be piggy-backed on a credit card issued by a commercial finance house. "Piggy-back" is an oft-heard phrase in the Central IT Unit these days: the Government is deeply interested in cheap ways of hitching a ride on other people's networks, such as BT's. This is one reason why, at least talking to officials, you don't hear much about cost: it is widely assumed that private firms will carry the initial capital costs of new equipment in return for a share of future income from line rentals and carriage charges.

Most of the technology under consideration in the "big vision" is not new nor particularly elaborate. What is revolutionary is what it might do for the way government functions. Put that in the bland prose of Whitehall and it still comes out as pretty strong stuff. "It will make us think anew about how we organise government work. For example, getting information from citizens at a single point then channelling it into a variety of different departments would completely change the way we work. Technological change is going to have major impact on politics and policy. It's going to be the next big driver."

For example, buy or sell a house and you would no longer have to pass the same information to and from planners in local authorities and the Land Registry (a Whitehall agency).

But reforming this process would drive a breach through Whitehall's departmentalism.The problem with the networks that could link such official bodies is not technical. It is not even financial. It belongs to a way of seeing government through the eyes of officials and civil servants rather than those of the citizen. Does it matter to the public that the boundaries of town hall jurisdiction end at an artificial point where central government begins?