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E-Government in Britain - how are we doing?

Could do better, says National Audit Office. Indeed, says Flexibility.

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 options".

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 personalised services

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?

The report 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 electronic services..."

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 of:

  • what level of service?

  • does it matter if people are using them?

  • what are the tests for quality of service and usability?

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 services".

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 levels:

"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.

Further Information

The reports mentioned here can be found on the publications page of the the National Audit Office website.

[This report is from 2002 - however many of the lessons are still to be learned!]

 

Government agencies in the UK have an ambitious target of making all their services available online by 2005. At every level strategies, action plans and initiatives are being developed.

But how much is really being achieved? Here we report on recent reports from the National Audit Office, which has been looking not only at the progress so far at central and local levels, but also at the coherence of the targets themselves.

The reports are quite hard-hitting - but how fair are they? And what, if anything have they missed?

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