The UK government has set ambitious
targets for putting government services online. How are they doing?
April saw the publication of a brace of reports from
the National Audit Office. Government on the Web II and
Better Public Services through E-Government paint a picture of the
story so far, achievements, the barriers to progress and whether value
for money is being achieved. If it were a school report for the
Government, it would read something like:
"making fitful progress in some areas, but so far
failing to get to grips with the range and complexity of the issues,
and may well miss the ambitious targets he's set himself. He needs
to challenge himself more, and not be content with taking the easy
This is not a school report, of course. It's a
progress check on a hugely ambitious undertaking. In addition to
regular spending on IT, the government is investing £1 billion ($1.46
billion) between 2001 and 2004 on central government initiatives, and
another £350 million ($512 million) in local e-government projects.
There's a lot at stake.
How's central government doing?
Government on the Web II agrees that there has been
some progress since its earlier report in 1999. It focuses in
particular on 3 central government departments: HM Customs and Excise, the Department for Transport,
Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), and the eccentrically-styled Office of the E-Envoy.
Customs and Excise gets a panning for its slowness in
developing a decent website, and for the absence of interactive and
Similarly, the DTLR's website, though heavily used,
provides only static information for the most part. The DTLR, however, is also
responsible for e-government developments in local government. The
DTLR was found to be deficient in monitoring local authorities'
e-government development, and, the Audit Office believes, has no way
of assessing whether local authorities are delivering value for money.
The strongest criticism, however, is reserved for the
Office of the e-Envoy. This department is the central
entity responsible for co-ordinating and monitoring e-government
development, and ensuring central government meets its targets of 100%
of services being available online by 2005. The report reads:
"The Office [of the e-Envoy] has relatively little
up-to-date and good quality information about the development of
central government on the web. It has made little progress on the
recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee in 2000 that it
should collect and publish systematic information on the development
of government Web traffic, the take-up of electronic services, or
the condition of government websites; and in developing a
methodology for justifying expenditure on Web provision".
The UK Online site, the government portal, is
criticised for its initial poor design and the far from smooth
transition from the previous well-used site (www.open.gov.uk). The
slow progress in developing transactional capabilities for government
departments is also noted.
How's local government doing?
Better Public Services through E-Government includes and in-depth
"census" of local government websites - and makes informative reading.
A similar pattern emerges as for central government sites. Overall
patchy, with some good examples of well-structured sites full of
useful content, and others barely off the ground. Once again, there is
a lack of interactive and transactional features.
The report takes a number of services and profiles the
level of e-service offered. Planning is a good example. While 40% of
authorities provide a list of planning applications, less than 10%
have flexible search facilities for planning applications (e.g.
searching by location), and less than 2% allow the submission of
planning applications online.
For some of the bigger services, like Council Tax
payment and Libraries, the picture is in fact rather better,
with 24% allowing payment of Council Tax online, and around 40% have
facilities allowing for searching for, reserving and renewing library
books online. Both these services tend to have been subject to major
computerisation processes already, whereas services like Planning
still tend to be heavily paper-based.
Otherwise, local government e-service provision is
dominated by the provision of static information, often very focusing
on institutional internally-orientated matters such as Best Value
Performance Plans, rather than having a customer focus.
The NAO's conclusions
One of the most important conclusions is that:
"The Office of the e-Envoy should review its targets
so as to incorporate explicitly requirements for departments and
agencies to grow the usage of their websites and the take-up of their
This highlights what was always the weakness of the
2005 electronic government targets. Having 100% of services available
online was always a somewhat unfocused target, begging the questions
Incidentally, the NAO surveys fall into the same trap
of reporting that x% of councils offer such-and-such service online,
without any information about uptake. But their point is that the
information is not there to be had.
So, a key lesson identified is that:
"All government sector agencies should put in place
appropriate management information to regularly monitor usage of their
web sites and electronic services, and play back this information to
the content providers responsible for originating web materials and
But the danger is, of course, that resources are
diverted to producing the layers of monitoring bureaucracy that are
strangling the life out of services that are actually trying to deliver
something. So such systems will have to be managed dynamically to
ensure responsiveness, rather than, as with so much monitoring and
evaluation in the public sector, simply charting under-performance.
Above all, and quite rightly, the NAO urges greater
development of transactional e-services, rather than just pumping out
more information. it also rightly urges that these be developed at all
"Developing e-government is not just a matter of some
big agencies implementing large-scale transactional facilities and the
remainder operating basic websites. All public agencies need to pursue
a balanced approach to developing electronic publishing and more
interactive content...alongside transactional facilities".
How fair are the reports?
In defence of e-government development so far, it has
to be said that these are early days, as yet, with money only
relatively recently coming on stream, and, to a large extent, high
level strategic work is often being entrusted to people without very
strong backgrounds in electronic service delivery.
The culture, business processes and working practices
of government agencies are not the best adapted to achieving an
e-government revolution, and though these issues are touched on in the
reports, far more attention and greater resources need to go into
changing the whole way government works - simply trying to graft on
electronic service delivery is a recipe for achieving partial results.
There are also factors beyond the control of
government agencies - though arguably not beyond the control of
government itself, given the will to act. A key one is low levels of
connectivity and access to online services in many areas, which
obliges the continuation of traditional service delivery mechanisms,
often against the background of cuts in budgets and new
responsibilities brought in by new legislation.
We are at an interim stage which provides a
chicken-and-egg situation. People aren't accessing government online
to any large degree, because the services are not there. And public
agency staff don't necessarily see the urgency to develop these
services as the demand isn't there yet, and universal service cannot
be provided in any case.
And if we might offer a further little quibble - the
National Audit Office website, though having most of its recent
reports online, is nothing to write home about, and isn't likely to
win any awards for best practice! It is particularly confusing why
some of the reports and supporting documents are on the NAO website,
and others on the "governmentontheweb.org" website (run by two London
University colleges), and some on both. Based on their own output, the
NAO should reflect on pots and kettles when they tackle other agencies
on poor design.
Further issues to consider
The NAO acknowledge their limited remit, and there are
other issues facing agencies seeking to implement e-government.
A key issue faced on a daily basis by public agencies
developing e-initiatives, but not really addressed in the reports, is
that of the emerging conflict between the need to work in partnership
with other agencies to win funds, and the centralising tendencies of
large organisations to achieve economies of scale in IT procurement
and service delivery.
Many e-government and other ICT projects do follow the
government mantra of "joined up services". Information sources and
service delivery offerings are pulled together in local or regional
partnerships, and these are often very customer focused, for example
pulling together all business services offered by local agencies.
Then, however, individual agencies in the partnership
find that large-scale central IT projects require them to withdraw
their involvement to conform with national online service delivery and
branding. Many innovative projects have bitten the dust this way, and
many more will follow, as well-targeted local initiatives have to give
way to more anodyne one-size-fits-all projects.
I know of one national agency which employed someone to
seek out and eliminate all "rogue" local and partnership websites they
had previously developed at considerable cost to ensure the dominance
of the national branding.
This is one of the biggest issues: ICT can be used to
centralise - but it can also be used to decentralise, and help
organisations work more effectively in partnership at the local level.
Squaring this circle is one of the biggest challenges for government
electronic service delivery.