Are we e-fficient?

From paying parking fines to filing tax returns, Tony Blair wants all government services to be fully online by next year. Wendy M Grossman is sceptical

Wednesday 24 November 2004 01:00

Four years ago, Tony Blair set a target: he wanted 100 per cent of government services to be online by 2005. Time's running out. So how has the Civil Service fared?

Four years ago, Tony Blair set a target: he wanted 100 per cent of government services to be online by 2005. Time's running out. So how has the Civil Service fared?

The Cabinet Office says that 74 per cent of government services are now "e-enabled", and that to date more than one million people have filed tax-credit claims online, for example. In the financial year ending April 2004, about 1.1 million self-assessment tax returns were filed online, as well as 65 per cent of new company registrations and three-quarters of first-time vehicle registrations.

At local government level, the latest survey of authorities by the Society of Information Technology Managers is based on data that's now nearly a year old. Then, only 22 of the UK's hundreds of local councils had websites that could handle transactions such as paying council tax or parking tickets.

The number has gone up since then. Richmond Borough Council in Surrey is not one of those 22, but it has one of the highest rates of penetration of broadband and internet access in the UK. In 2003, it launched an online system for reviewing and commenting on planning applications. In the year since the system went live, more than 100,000 searches have been carried out.

"I think there is a suppressed demand," says Lance Quantrill, the Richmond councillor responsible for e-government, who worked in IT at 3M for 20 years. Using the council's system, residents can not only pay tax, but report missed garbage pick-ups, dead streetlights and abandoned cars, and get replies from the relevant staff within a day or so. Richmond, Quantrill says, aims to be a "fast follower", adopting systems as soon as they are proven elsewhere.

This year, however, there has been a notable shift in national emphasis towards back-office efficiency. This is partly due to the Gershon report, which reviewed procurement in the civil service. Take the appointment of Ian Watmore to take over from the former e-envoy Andrew Pinder. Watmore has said that where Pinder's role was to direct a social programme to get the UK, including government, online, he sees himself as more like a chief information officer in a big company: "My focus is purely on the Government as a service provider."

So the question is whether the headline target is the right one. Quantrill says: "The 100 per cent target is not so much a dream as a nightmare." For one thing, he says, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, making the final stages an undesirable drain on resources. "E-government is not electronic," he says. "The 'e' should stand for enabling, because it's about what happens when that is applied. We must ask, 'What's the point, and how does it benefit the citizen?'"

William Heath, the chairman of the research consultancy Kable, which specialises in the public sector, agrees that the goal is too limited. "It's simplistic to think we're at a certain point on an inevitable journey from A, offline, to B, online, with B being inevitably good." Heath set up the Ideal Government ( site for people to contribute their best ideas about what electronic government should be.

One of his own key questions concerns the deep suspicion surrounding the back end of "joined-up government" - shared databases, particularly the proposed national register that is to lie behind the ID card scheme, which could allow detailed profiling of citizens. If we trusted our government, he says, single registers would not be such a concern. "I don't think bad e-government, like websites with endless forms or call centres, will restore our trust."

Arguably, we have the right to make demands. We are talking about a huge investment at the taxpayer's expense. According to Kable, total government expenditure on IT in 2003/04 is about £12.1bn, most of it central funding. Spending is projected to rise to £16.6bn in 2006/07. This includes projects such as modernising the IT systems of the NHS (£2.3bn) and the Department of Work and Pensions (£5bn).

"There are volumes of expenditure being poured into this stuff," says Stefan Magdalinski, the organising force behind, a site that allows anyone to see a full profile of their MP, including their statements in Parliament, how many votes they've attended, how they voted, and so on. "And it's so untied to anything people might want."

One thing he himself wants is for the Government to get out of the business of creating portals that the public is supposed to use as a gateway - an approach that went out on the commercial web in 1995. "They should get good at search-engine optimisation and which service-delivery points they want to optimise. If they want serious uptake, promote the places where you can actually pay your road tax above all the other areas."

More than that, says Magdalinski, they need to do a lot more to make data feeds available in formats that third parties can use. His own website is a case in point. "The e-government framework has been going on for some years, but they still publish everything in PDF." PDF, Adobe's portable document format that preserves formatting and can be read on almost any computing device, is good for forms and material that is going to be printed. But why produce the recent listing of MPs' expenses in that way, which makes it impossible to search them and to sort them meaningfully?

For the kinds of services Magdalinski builds, PDF is a hindrance. He wants data published in standard machine-readable formats designed to allow re-use by third parties. By the next general election, should be able to provide a detailed scorecard on every MP: voting record, speeches made in Parliament, expenses claims. And why shouldn't charities like the Royal National Institute for the Blind be able to scrape all relevant government information - legislation, direct links to benefits - into a website that is designed to make life easier for its members?

The Citizens Advice Bureau is one intermediary that has made some progress. It has been granted £23m in funding from the Treasury's capital modernisation fund to equip and interlink all its bureaux with broadband. According to John Wheatley, the e-government policy strategist for the CAB, about one-third of the organisation's inquiries involve social security benefits or tax credits, though surveys of its clients show that most don't have internet access. CAB advisers, therefore, are being given read-only access to benefits records so they can check the status of claims for their clients.

"Central government needs to think much more creatively about how they use intermediaries," Wheatley says. "They need to be less protective about who delivers their services and be open to honest suggestions about what role the voluntary sector and other organisations could play. They need to recognise that we are in touch with many of the people who are also trying to get through to them, but who trust us more than someone in a pension call-centre. But we have a principle of independence to maintain - that is why clients trust us. They see that we're not part of the government machine." He is, however, additionally concerned that the Government does not transfer its legitimate responsibilities to the voluntary sector.

Glyn Evans, the director of business solutions and IT for Birmingham, the largest council in Europe, believes that the view of e-government to date has been limited to one idea: "Put services online and we'll somehow be transformed. I wish it were that simple." Instead, he says: "We have to rebuild our relationship with citizens, and ultimately that's what e-government would allow us to do. There is a measure of control to be handed to the citizen that can't be managed in a traditional bureaucracy."

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