500% online. That’s what we need now.

100% online. What kind of a target is that? It should be 500% online. That’ll give the folks that like to disagree with the old target something to think about. Let them waste some energy arguing about that.

Let’s try this to help explain the extra 400% : In April 2000, the Inland Revenue let you register to send your Self Assessment form to them via the Internet (perhaps the first true online government service in the UK?). A little later, you were able to send the whole tax return in, using a bit of software on a disc. The year after, you could use a web application. Box ticked – Self Assessment was online. Not really, and they knew it – so they fixed it. Despite all the flak from the flakes, the IR went on adding stuff that you could do. After all, sending the form in is only a part of the process. Now you can check your statement (to see how much you owe or, maybe, how much is owed to you), pay the tax owing, get a text alert to remind you of deadlines, change your address and so on. One service – multiple sub-services. Back in the day we used to call this a “life event”, that is, paying tax (although I think we kept them a bit higher level than that with stuff like having a baby, dealing with a bereavement etc).

So what counts as 100% online? All of the headline services available? Or all of the headline services plus the multitude of sub-services that sit underneath them? Got to be at least 5x as many services that way, maybe more. So we’ll go for 500% online – by when? 2005? 2010?

One of the consequences of those sub-services is that the gaps between government functions are exposed – and not necessarily just the gaps between departments and other entities but within departments and local authorities. Changing your address with one bit of a department – council tax, say – doesn’t mean that you’ve changed it with housing benefit. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve changed it with child tax credit. Ah, bless those silos and silos within silos. The fortresses that were built as Oliver Cromwell ravaged the land are still fully intact.

When we look at a whole lifecycle of dealing with government, the transactions that we do – that at first appear to be pretty much once per year type things – become quite frequent and burdensome, if only because of the fragmentary nature of who we are dealing with.

Beyond that would be the clever stuff that people talk about – the bit where we get rid of our forms-based mentality and start talking about information chunks flowing smoothly from our bank, our PC, our accountant to the government and back without us having to interfere. A lofty vision that is some way away I guess.

Without addressing those sub-services – the way the Inland Revenue have done so – people that make the switch to online services quickly hit a roadblock that they can’t circumvent without reverting to paper or phone. And if they have to go to paper for that bit, maybe they’ll stay on paper to keep it all simple and collected together? And then we get a lower adoption rate than we might otherwise get and one that doesn’t quite justify all of the money thrown at it.

I’ve just come back from a few days in the USA. Let’s call it my “going abroad” life event. I booked the flight online (via the BA website) and selected the seat I wanted – you know the one, with the extra leg room. I booked the hotel online, via Lastminute.com (I was a shareholder at the time and figured that they needed all the revenue that they could get). I mailed the hotel and selected the room I wanted – 1001 – and arranged for them to take delivery of some packages for me. I booked 3 restaurants using the wonderful opentables.com (which is a lot like our toptable site in the UK) and even checked their winelists. I ordered the things I wanted delivered to the hotel from Amazon and other sites. All without picking up the phone. In most of the government world, I might have been able to “book the flight” (i.e. send in the benefits form) but I doubt I could have done the equivalent of all of the other things.

This is changing, slowly and in some fortresses. I can email my local council and, most of the time, they respond; except when I want to talk to them about a planning application in my area. They’ve been pretty silent on that one. Let me rattle on for a bit about my recent “moving house” life event:

As part of moving house, there’s a ton of things that need to get done. There are people to update with the new address, new licences to get, utilities to get connected or re-connected and so on. I wanted to do as much of that as possible online – I was even prepared to spend extra time, just to prove that it was all completely achievable.

Phone – check; water – check; electricity – check; broadband – check; address changes – uhoh.

I live in a brand new build – fresh out of the ground. It’s got a post code that no-one seems to know about. The phone company and the others didn’t seem to care – they knew that they had pipes in the ground or whatever. Everyone else, no dice. The banks, the insurance companies, the parcel delivery services – not one of them was interested. Most of their websites assumed I had made an error with the postcode and so sent me back to the post code entry scheme. So far, so customer unfriendly. Still, I was sticking with it.

The Post Office promised me faithfully, via their online look-up service (free registration, only takes a couple of minutes) that I had the right post code. Next stop, the local council. I don’t exist. Well, not so much me as the property. It doesn’t exist. Numbers 1-9 are fine, but number 11, not there. I’m pretty sure the place isn’t an afterthought – I mean, it looks like it was meant to be part of the whole building. There’ll be an inspector from the council along in a minute (well, sometime, they promised) to check if there really is a property there. I told them I was sure there was, after all, I was mailing them from the living room. But I wasn’t breaking my online only plan. They’ll figure it out when they update their PAF file from those lovely folks at the Post Office. Ah, the GPO. Although they know where the place is, they seem to deliver here only when it suits them rather than when there is mail. I wonder whether they wait until there’s enough to warrant a man wandering down with his post trolley. The Post Office’s sorting centre is, after all, a good 10 minute walk at a brisk pace.

Gradually, the number of websites that will accept my post code as valid is increasing, as they feed in the latest PAF CD or whatever. Home insurance is proving a bit of a bigbear – those insurance companies were always a bit slow on the uptake with technology. Maybe they can send an inspector to satisfy their curiousity.

That leaves the TV licence. It may be my education that suffered, but I was never really sure of the difference between “licence” and “license” – maybe it’s a verb, to licence, and a thing, a license. Anyway, the website for the tv folks is http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk. Not .gov.uk, not licencing, but just as I’ve listed it there. Eventually I found it through directgov – which was higher up the search rankings that the tv site itself. All went well there until I came to the button to complete the transaction when it promptly popped up a window asking me to complete a customer satisfaction survey. Oh was I going to have some fun with them. Inconsistent naming conventions, lack of use of alternative spellings, badly designed site. But then the site gave me an error message and asked if I wanted to debug. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I’d be on the hook for fixing their whole site, so I politely declined. I have enough to do without debugging someone else’s site!

500% online. Got a nice ring to it. A stretch target I guess it would be called.

One thought on “500% online. That’s what we need now.

  1. The new age of iPod tricks and bluetooth enabled jackets is more like pointing towards 500% connected rather than 500% online. Online systems are a big yawn unless you are a serial ABC1 pre-planner with time to spare and a penchant for keyboards – for most life is too short, singular & mono-syllabic.

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