Three, Hutchison’s money losing 3G mobile network, has launched a new marketing scheme – get a call or receive a text from another 3 customer and you’ll get credits back on your own usage. Receive a 5 min call and get 2 texts free runs the buzz. It only works if you get a call from another 3 customer and if you’re a Pay as You Go customer.
It’s a fascinating model. The model for the USA was, for years (maybe even still is?), that you paid if you received a call let alone made one. When 1-2-1 (now T-Mobile) launched in the UK (1992/3?) the day one deal was that you could call anyone in the next dialcode area for nothing (so someone who had an 071 number could call an 081 number for free for as long as they wanted – this was before 0171 and 0181). I remember that Lord Young, then Chairman of C&W, announced that it would be an offer for ever, but it wasn’t too long before he had to bring it to a close – people were using pairs of phones as baby monitors, leaving calls open for hours.
In the .gov world, the Inland Revenue tried this in their first year of online Self Assessment – file online and get £10 off your bill. It didn’t seem to drive traffic, although it wasn’t the money that was the problem, but issues with the service. HM Customs offered VAT payers an extra week’s grace before payment was due. Changes like this often require updates to primary legislation – never the simplest thing to get through and heavily dependent on the timetables for other changes. Since the Carter report, HMRC have had another go at paying businesses to file online – a few hundred pounds is available if you do VAT and PAYE, for instance. This seems to be driving traffic – although isolating out (as Dan comments on a previous post) what is natural growth, advertising growth or people after the money is likely to be a challenge.
There ought, you’d think, to be more room for this kind of deal. If government saves billions, perhaps you’d want some of it back? I don’t think it’s likely – whilst HMRC have been creative in their campaigns and attempts to entice people online, other departments don’t seem to have the same desire. Paying money back doesn’t seem to be the first thing on the list. And whilst government continues to spend zillions on too many inaccessible websites, it’s unlikely that the equation will change. E-government is probably still running at a loss on an aggregate basis across government. Those doing will and driving traffic (driving test appointments online, online car tax, etc) are covering the costs – at an aggregate rather than direct level – the costs of those not doing well. For me, this is why the direct.gov model is crucial. There are still those who say that most people search for the service that they want and so effort should be expended on making government sites hit the top of the list, but what happens if you search and find content that is old or inaccurate – how would you know?
I often read articles that, in passing, note the number of government websites (usually with a disclaimer that no one really knows how many there are. There is, of course, only one way to register and so numbers are kept but perhaps they’re not kept well?). 3,500 maybe 4,000 or maybe even 4,500 exist – too many millions chasing too few visitors.
News on the e-government front in the UK is lacking – the unit’s own website shows that it was last updated in mid-December 2005, with the move of Ian Watmore to head the PMDU. Has nothing newsworthy happened in the last 3 months? Michel Cross put together some good stats in December, following parliamentary questions from Sarah Teather:
But the number of websites in use was not known
At the last count, the Cabinet Office e-Government Unit, which is responsible for the .gov.uk domain, had approved 3,419 .gov.uk names. But not all are in use. Jim Murphy, the minister responsible for e-government, told parliament earlier this year that the Cabinet Office does not hold figures on the number of .gov websites, nor on the number of civil servants employed to run them.
And then this gem:
Early next year, a £5m advertising campaign under the slogan “Lose the queues” will try to persuade people across the country to go online to contact government. But the Cabinet Office may find it difficult to turn the tide. Over the past decade, hardly a month has gone by without some new government-run or sponsored site appearing. Last month, Defra added to the list by announcing the Central Point on Expertise on Timber Procurement at http://www.proforest.net/cpet. Its worthy purpose is to guide public bodies to buy timber only from sustainable resources.
Helen Margetts, professor of e-government at Oxford university, says that diversity is part of the web’s culture – and in the Google age, users don’t need central government portals to show them where to go. “You can’t tidy up the internet like a child’s bedroom,” she says.
Ms Margetts is wrong though. I get my news from Google News or from the BBC, I don’t surf dozens of websites looking for the headlines; I get my stock portfolio information from a single site, not from one for each company. I know what is authoritative and that’s where I go. Most people are the same. We keep ten or a dozen favourite sites, why wouldn’t direct.gov be one of those (ok, maybe it’s the 11th or 13th)? Where services are commonly looked for, it would bring the content together and create a simple way through the complexity of governmnet. Where no one asked for a service it would simply point to an external (usually but not always governmental) authoritative source. There is still a hidden demand for joined up information – no one that I’ve ever spoken to, including government workers, knows how government works across the board and only, I suspect, government people can bring it together in a way that will make sense. Direct.gov is doing a good job of that so far – and it’s funding would best come from closing down other sites that it is making obsolete.