Brave new world of the plastic card

By 2005, the everyday hassles of dealing with government bureaucracy could be a distant memory. Sandra Vogel reports
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The Independent Online
If the ideas presented in a report launched late last month at the House of Commons are to be taken seriously, by the year 2005 we could all be using our supermarket loyalty cards to check our bank balance, pay the gas bill and learn about new social security benefits to which we might be entitled, as well as racking up those bonus points.

The report, Citizen Direct, considers the potential benefits and pitfalls of widening the use of information technology, through the perspective of "Edward" and his sister, "Jean".

Between them, Jean and Edward lose and seek jobs, deal with the administration surrounding the death of their mother, lobby government against Heathrow's Terminal Six via the Internet and do voluntary work - prison visiting by video-conference - all by different kinds of computer technology, in the home and in public places.

The premise is to show how technology could be used to deliver public- and private-sector services directly to the citizen and to make the process as painless and bureaucracy-free as possible. Vin Sumner of Sema, a consulting, systems integration and outsourcing service company and one of the report's sponsors, points out that "people deal with government in lots of different ways. They don't necessarily want to understand the complexities of how they do this, they just want to do it conveniently."

Citizen Direct gets its message across by showing ways in which dealing with central and local government could be made more transparent by technology, allowing individuals to perform tasks simply. Take a death in the family as an example. Currently, it has to be reported to different government agencies individually. Citizen Direct shows how, in 2005, one official report, completed and submitted by a paramedic, could inform the local council, benefits and taxation departments and even driving licence agency.

David Clark, minister for public services, is enthusiastic about using technology to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of government work. "Technological innovations will have a tremendous impact on the way people use public services and on the quality and range of services they are provided with," he said. "The challenge for government is to harness this for the benefit of our community as a whole."

Of the new Better Government programme, and his forthcoming White Paper aimed at reforming government bureaucracy, he said: "We will draw on what IT has to offer to provide better services and to redesign the whole structure of these services around the citizen's perspective."

The MP Martin Bell, who wrote the report's foreword, believes that technology can make lives easier, but is wary of the potential pitfalls. "I don't want new systems that utilise IT to be so complicated that they only work for nerds, geeks and anoraks," he said. "And I am concerned about the Big Brotherish possibilities."

Bell is keen that the Data Protection Registrar takes an early role in countering the dangers of information being shared and collated, but believes the needs of the citizen must remain paramount. It is important for him that the development of new technologies is not hijacked by party politics - something that, as an independent, he believes he can help to prevent.

Citizen Direct tackles that issue by proposing the appointment of a Commissioner for Citizen Services, reporting directly to the Prime Minister and responsible for ensuring that existing programmes to promote efficiency, openness and the Citizen's Charter are assisted and not damaged by new technologies. It proposes an Act to guarantee the citizen the right to access any data held about them by any organisation, public or private.

Nobody disagrees about the future importance of technology to the delivery of government information and services, and, if the mood at the launch is any guide, the people with the power to make big decisions seem to have the interests of the average person as their guiding force.

Back in the real world, however, things are not quite so rosy. When I asked a Cabinet Office press officer if she could e-mail me the text of a speech, she replied that they didn't have e-mail quite yet in the Cabinet Office. Well, maybe by 2005.

`Citizen Direct' is available from Kable, 0171-608 0900 and costs pounds 50.