Ten Years of e-government – and I was there

At the end of last year I wrote a retrospective on e-government. Rather than publish it here, Ian Dunmore at Public Sector Forums kindly published it on his site. I wanted to follow it up – extending my occasional series covering the idea that government has won the battle versus “e”. To make it a little easier to read, I’ve split the piece into 3 parts. I’ll be picking up some of the threads in coming posts.

With the publication in November 2005 of the ‘Transformational Government – enabled by technology’ document by the e-Government unit, a strategy that advocates, among other things, rationalisation of websites, sharing of back office infrastructure and dramatic improvements in IT skills within government, it’s a good time to look back at what online service delivery has achieved over the last ten years, says Alan Mather, ex-Head of the Government’s e-Delivery Team.

It’s also the start of 2006 and therefore the Prime Minister’s goal of having all of government online should by now be reality…

As of 1995, the Internet was still in its infancy, although it was already ten years since the first domain name had been registered (symbolics.com in March 1985 if you’re interested) and the World Wide Web was just coming out of its terrible twos as far as the real world was concerned – in 1991 there were only ten web sites to look at, even if you knew how. Wired magazine had not yet celebrated 12 issues, Windows 95 was being readied for gold release, Marc Andreessen wasn’t yet a billionaire (Bill Gates was, several times over), the verb ‘to google’ didn’t exist, none of us knew what ‘first mover advantage’ was and the only long tail we’d come across was on a mouse.

Surprisingly, you probably hadn’t yet received your first text message, least of all one reminding you to send in your Self Assessment form.

The UK government however was taking its first steps towards an e-government presence with the launch of a portal – open.gov.uk – and this when portals were hardly the rage, even in technogeek land.

Open.gov was the product of a few visionaries in the Cabinet Office, the heart of Whitehall. For most, this part of government is like the centre of the hurricane – not much goes on whilst all around is chaos. But these few technologists were onto something.

They might have been working from John Major’s blueprint for Direct Access Government or they might have been in it just for the fun of running government’s first web portal. Indeed, if you search for ‘Direct Access Government’ there are still around 1,000 results to be found, demonstrating that one of the principal uses of the web is to find out how you’re no longer saying what you used to say, particularly if you’re in government.

Back then, open.gov wasn’t much to look at – although its adherents might tell you otherwise – but then Jakob Nielsen hadn’t yet achieved worldwide fame for his thinking on user interface design and anyway, wasn’t design all about furniture?

Open.gov was, simply, a directory of government – an A to Z where the Treasury was listed under ‘H’ (for Her Majesty’s Treasury). It was a strictly governmental view of things – but there was nothing else quite like it at the time. It was Yahoo for government (remembering that Yahoo didn’t go public and therefore enter mainstream consciousness until April 1996) but without the sense that someone had assessed whether the sites were worth looking at or even whether it was worth having a set of such sites to begin with. Technologists ruled the web back then and while it was ‘worldwide’ it wasn’t yet ‘wide’.

Ten years ago, the Internet had no more than 10 million users globally. In 1997, less than 2% of the UK population was online. As recently as August 1999, there were only 22,000 secure web servers in the OECD counties, with 16,000 of those in the USA. In June 2005, Netcraft announced there were 64,808,485 websites in total (with 70% running on Apache software and only 23% using Microsoft products).

At the end of 2005, with over £6 billion spent by government to deliver online projects, how did things stack up? Perhaps the best place to start is by looking at what else is done online and how services provided by the private sector have evolved.

• Broadband is now in 39% of British homes, up 100% on the previous year. 55% of the UK population have access to the Internet. Of the remainder, around half have no interest in the Internet and don’t know why they would want to use it and the other half believe it could be valuable but haven’t yet found something that would persuade them to use it.

• 15 million people actively bank online, managing 24 million accounts out of a total of around 115 million in the banking system overall.
• In 2005, 40% of Britons will have bought something online, double that of the figure only three years ago. Online retailing, in money terms, is growing at 4.6% per month, every month. During December 2005, some £150 million will be spent online every day, taking the Internet’s market share of retail purchasing this Christmas to around 6%.
• eBay launched in 1995. In 2000, its revenue outside of the USA was just $29 million; in 2004, it was over $1 billion (US revenue is nearly $2 billion). eBay is expecting to sell £4 billion of goods in the UK during 2005, around 1.3% of all retail sales. 50,000 of UK citizens get a sizeable chunk of their income from eBay sales – 70,000 Americans earn all of their money through the site. eBay now has over 150 million users worldwide.
• In July 1995, Amazon.com launched. Only a year earlier, Jeff Bezos had founded the company after, reportedly, seeing a statistic that the Internet was growing at 2,300% a year. Two months later, the site was handling $20,000 worth of sales a week. In 1997, revenues were $147 million (versus Barnes and Noble’s $2.4 billion). Amazon went public in May 1998 and in July 1999 – when the site was receiving 10 million unique visitors a month – its stock market value was around $20 billion. In 2000 alone, Amazon lost nearly $1.5 billion. It announced, in 2005, that advance sales of a single book – the latest Harry Potter – would eclipse their entire sales from their first year of operation.
• Figleaves.com, selling over 100 types of knickers (who knew there were so many?) from 260 brands has 400,000 customers and 2 million site visits a month. Sales growth has averaged 75% over each of the last 3 years.
• In July 2005, 2.76 million text messages were sent in the UK alone – an average of 87 million a day and up 24% on the previous year. During the Live8 concert, 26.4 million messages were sent. On New Year’s Day, 133 million messages were sent. The average person sends 36 a week or the rather stunning number of 100,000 in a lifetime (that’s around £10,000 in fees to your mobile phone provider at perhaps the equivalent of £700 per megabyte). 30% of London congestion charge payments are made by text.

So what of UK government? At the Labour Party conference in 1997, the Prime Minister had announced his plans for ‘simple government’ with a short paragraph in his first conference speech since taking charge of the country:

“We will publish a White Paper in the new year for what we call Simple Government, to cut the bureaucracy of Government and improve its service. We are setting a target that within five years, one quarter of dealings with Government can be done by a member of the public electronically through their television, telephone or computer.”

Less than three years later, in March 2000, having set a target of getting all services online – a shift away from pure usage to absolute delivery – by 2008 four months before, Mr. Blair challenged that aim:

“I am determined that Government should play its part, so I am bringing forward our target for getting all Government services online, from 2008 to 2005.”

Intriguingly, the press notes for the speech change the order of the channels so that computer is first and TV last:

“By 2005 all Government services will be available online through personal computer, telephone, or Digital TV”

In the 5 years between open.gov launching and the PM announcing the idea of putting all services online, relatively little had gone on. Certainly most departments had launched websites, usually run deep inside the IT department and often looked after by the very same folks who had put open.gov together.

By the end of 1999, there were perhaps 200-300 websites hiding inside the .gov.uk domain, almost all of which were either hand coded HTML or put together using early versions of Frontpage or Dreamweaver.

The sites were there because someone, somewhere in the organisation thought there should be one, but there was little expectation of using them to provide services or driving traffic away from paper channels towards online forms.

That all changed in 2000. Why? A few reasons, perhaps.

 • The Prime Minister’s speech galvanised departments into action – at the time many inside government said that if you wanted anything done, you needed the PM’s signature.
 • The government’s first e-envoy, Alex Allen, was appointed (although his tenure was to be short – he had moved on before the end of the same year). Rumour has it that it was Peter Mandelson’s idea to use the title ‘envoy’ which means, after all, a government representative sent on a special mission. In this case, the mission was, apparently, ‘e’.
• The Treasury made funds available for online services, via one of their regular ‘Capital Modernisation Fund’ rounds, shovelling tens of millions of pounds on the back of sometimes less than detailed business cases to a few departments.
• The Inland Revenue decided, months ahead of anything vaguely comparable in the rest of government, to launch its first fully transactional service – Self Assessment – making it available, potentially at least, to all 8 million people who filed their returns this way.

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