Ages ago, we e-governmentalists in the UK were somewhat hoisted on our own petard. By that I mean that the measure of our e-government success became, accidentally, the online Self Assessment service. Whatever happened with the service was widely reported – every outage or issue, whether real or imagined, was covered. Back when I was still involved, a well publicised and well planned outage to allow for an upgrade was a lead item on the Beeb’s 6pm news broadcast, for instance. Given another chance, I don’t think we would have allowed this situation to develop.
So now, when I present at conferences abroad or where there are several governments present, I usually ask how many of the representatives there have put tax services online. Pretty much all the time, all of the hands go up. The follow-up question, whether they have put benefits online, is greeted with just a smattering of hands, if any. The lesson learnt is clear – “don’t make tax first”. Why?
Governments are hung up on putting services online that often reflect the ones that are hardest for them, not the ones that are hardest for the citizen. That’s not to say that tax is simple. It isn’t. But it’s a once per year thing that is usually left until the last minute – the online peaks (in September and January) are just the same as the offline peaks, despite the fact that the software certainly makes it easier. Benefits, on the other hand, are usually triggered by a change of circumstances or status – an addition to the family, a change of address, an illness in the family, the loss of a job and so on. That means that the claims period is more spread out, that interaction is possibly more frequent (across the population as a whole) and that, with the right pointers, people can be encouraged more easily to use the online services. Benefits are also the province of many departments (certainly in the UK) – the Dept of Work and Pensions, the Inland Revenue (for tax credits), local authorities and so on. Navigating the maze of government to get money is pretty hard – and that’s for something that people really, really want.
Usage of the online tax service is definitely rising, which is great news. But it is not the be all and end all of online government and it’s a shame that it so often seems that way.
So if you want to see your take-up figures go up, delivering online benefits may be the answer. So, my vote is for a website (not another website, surely!) called http://www.giveandtake.gov.uk, where all of the benefits are laid out based on who you are, what’s going on in your life and what might happen. That would be some killer-app.