Is e-gov worth it?

Following Mike Cross’ piece in the Guardian nearly 2 weeks ago, there was a bit of a flurry of press this week on usage (or lack of it) of government websites. We’ve been here before of course, and I was pleased to see Bill Thompson over at Voxpolitics say (in a sentiment that I can wholeheartedly agree with):

“It would be a tragedy if the growing pile of negative reports led to a loss of faith in the project as a whole – rather than just prompting people to try to do it better, learn from their mistakes and provide services that people want and will use”

What caused the flurry was yet another survey, by Portfolio Communications (I’m guessing that that’s their website as I can’t find the research report on it), and reported by Netimperative and ZDnet at least, says that (in a sample of 1,000) only 7% of people access local government services online during 2002, but that “over 40 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds would prefer to use the Web to access information“, and therefore “Public take-up of local government online services will remain low for at least the next 10 years”.

Portfolio’s director, Mark Westaby, said: “Fast pay-back is a key driver of public sector services, but this research suggests that the trend towards use of online local government services is unlikely to increase dramatically until today’s younger generation gets significantly older. Clearly, this is not going to happen for some considerable time, possibly a decade or longer. As a result it will be vital for government not only to ensure that online services are available, but also that local communities are educated about the benefits of using them and are fully incentivised to do so.”

What’s interesting for me is that people are not saying “I tried it and it was crap, so I didn’t go back”, they’re saying that they haven’t even looked yet to see if there is anything worthwhile. Given that we have more than 50% of people online, there’s still a big part of the population that have the wherewithall to access services, but have not been persuaded to make the jump … so is that a marketing problem? We’re talking about local government services in this case, where finding your local council website is usually pretty easy (mine is, so there’s no trying to figure out which bit of government you need to talk to.

A while ago I put a slide up at a conference (and this was before Mike’s leap of faith point), wondering whether we were finally “leaping ahead” in e-government – having broken down the initial barriers. The slide looked like this:

I did have a bunch of leaping frogs in there, but everytime I pasted it into my blog, they came up with white backgrounds (instead of blue) and made the slide too hard to read. You’ll have to ask me to show you that slide, in its full animated glory, at a conference sometime.

You’ll see the quote from Gartner (which I think was a May 2002 quote) saying that the benefits of e-government will be delayed past 2010, that many projects will fail and, separately, that we’ll spend a lot of money and that silos are still the biggest barrier. Not a lot has changed since then, except that there might just be a recognition that two of the key planks of the strategy will be marketing and education. It’s difficult if not impossible to market 1800 websites, so there’s an argument in there for rationalisation or at the very least cross-linking (if you visit many government websites now, you’ll see ad banners for other government sites – something that my team introduced a month ago or so on the basis that we can advertise on our own sites for free and on a hunch that cross-traffic might be easy to generate. Results aren’t in yet, but I’m expecting it to work well). Education is a bit harder – the 6,000+ ukonline centres are part of it, as will be the campaign in the Spring that the PM talked about at the e-summit, but I don’t see us waiting 10 years to get mainstream usage. By then, all the investment we have put in to date may be redundant and I’d hate to think that we wouldn’t get some kind of return!

But the real deal, if this survey is to be believed, is that people aren’t bothered to look for government services – which might mean that they have few interactions and so don’t go out of their way when they do have them, or it might mean that, as I believe, we’ve failed the neighbour test, i.e. that noone has ever said to someone else “I just looked on that site and got myself a £100 extra tax credit a month” … which is a shame, because you just might if you look. And if you do, will you promise to tell your neighbour? I wonder whether we should put a mail form at the end of that site that says “tell 2 friends about this by putting their e-mail addresses here”? Might work.

Incidentally, you folks at Voxpolitics have been very quiet recently, hope everything is ok or is just that not much happens in democracy in January?

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