Ten Years of e-government, Part 2

Since then, it’s very much been a case of the Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly. On the basis that bad news travels fastest let’s take a look at the ugly ones first:

They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity and, in the case, of online government services, ‘they’ may be right. After all, if you don’t know a service exists, you may never look for it. So pages of bad news stories about services are likely at least to register in your mind and, some time later, you might find it (although I’d give you only a 1 in 5 chance of remembering any government web address from the time you first heard about it).

In the awards for largest amount of bad publicity, three services stand out:

Self Assessment The Inland Revenue moved too early and too fast and suffered great pain for its efforts. Their service launched in April 2000 but early versions required you to order a CD containing the tax return software with the completed form sent over the Internet. In July 2000, the press picked up that the IR were printing online forms and then typing them in again. In 2001, the Revenue were criticised again for striking a deal with Microsoft to provide a truly online, interactive tax return capability (actually, the partnership was with a small UK firm, but the details were lost in the storm). In September 2002, perhaps spurred on by the increasing popularity of Napster’s music sharing service, the Revenue inadvertently allowed users to share their tax returns with other people and although the total number affected before it was pulled numbered less than 20, front pages were plastered with the story. In January 2004 and again in January 2005, the service was criticised several times for being unavailable (at an important time of the tax year – returns are due in by the end of January). In 2000, just 75,000 people sent their tax returns in online; in 2004, the total was over 1,500,000. The 2005 tax year looks set to improve on that number by perhaps double digit percentage points.

1901 Census: On the first working day of January 2002, the Public Records Office launched their fully searchable digitised version of the 1901 Census records – the first time such data had been made available to people unwilling to devote hours to searching boxloads of microfiche stored in their Kew Gardens office. The service proved to be a huge draw with genealogists from around the world who accessed it in their millions. Or, at least, they would have done if it had stayed up. Demand proved too strong and the service buckled under the load, remaining unavailable for most of 2002 whilst large scale fixes were applied. The service was brought about using an innovative partnership deal with Qinetiq who fronted the investment in return for a slice of the revenues. It may have been just as well that there were problems early on as it gave the PRO time to correct some errors in the data entry process that had made some of the records very questionable. Since it re-launched, the census has attracted tens of thousands of users a day, earning millions of pounds in search fees – there are a vast number of budding genealogists globally it seems.

Flood Alerts: While the Census was struggling to work, the rains were tumbling down, not just on the plains but pretty much everywhere else as well. The Environment Agency had urged people to use its brand new service, Online Flood Alerts, to check where the worst affected areas were likely to be. Surprisingly given the low usage of most online services at the time, people responded in droves – promptly disabling the service at its most needed hour. The EA’s phone lines were besieged and most callers were unable to get through. When it rains, it pours.

Moving on to the plain ‘bad’, it’s easy to pick holes with a strategy (or perhaps the absence of one) that’s resulted in more than 4,000 individual websites, dozens of inconsistent and incompatible services and a level of takeup that, for the most popular services, is perhaps 25% at best.

 After all, in a world where most people have 10-12 sites they visit regularly, it’s unlikely even one of those would be a government site – most interactions with government are, at best, annual and so there’s little incentive to store a list of government sites you might visit.

As the count of government websites rose inexorably – from 1,600 in mid-2002 to 2,500 a year later and nearly 4,000 by mid-2005 – citizen interest in all but a few moved in the opposite direction.

Every site that could held definitions of services like ‘disability living allowance’ or ‘incapacity benefit’, instantly confusing anyone unlucky enough to stray across any such two (although incidents like these were likely to be rare given how few people used government services online anyway). Many sites tried to be the gateway to services they didn’t own and links from one to another were commonly poorly maintained, leading to dead ends or out of date information.

Meanwhile, the price of delivering even an elementary service was moving up fast. Running a single website costs anywhere from £100,000 to over £500,000 a year but little money was, it seems, spent on the basics: good design, accessibility for all and relevant content.

Over 80% of the cost of any given website was spent on technology – content management tools, web server software, servers themselves – as technology buyers and their business unit partners became easy pickings for salesmen with 2 car families to support.

Too often, design meant flashy graphics, complicated pages, too much information on a page and confusing navigation. Accessibility meant, simply, the site wasn’t.

Content was relevant to the author but not to the viewer. Local authorities would define services according to their geographic boundaries, not based on, for instance, the nearest option for a citizen. Central government departments filled their sites with policy-speak requiring a degree in politics (and from a good university too) to follow.

Services weren’t joined up so registering a new house for council tax meant visiting the local authority, the valuation office and then the local authority again.

Transactional services were even more separate – claiming more than one benefit (child tax credit and child benefit perhaps) meant two different, near identical processes. And things were worse still for business – one service would need your company registration number, another your VAT details, a third your PAYE reference, a fourth your National Insurance Number.

In short, services were supply-led by the government, not demand-led by the consumer. But where was the demand? Was the demand even there? Should it be up to the citizen to scream for the services they want and, if they did, would they – as Henry Ford claimed before producing the Model T – just want ‘faster horses’, or more of the same they’d always had performed a little quicker?

The UK population has been sceptical of online services provided by government since the start – and, in that, the UK is far from alone.

In December 2005 even the UAE was lamenting in the press the lack of usage of their services (despite them having 84% of services online, the Internet’s share is under 20%).

Despite the high adoption figures for commercial services such as Amazon, eBay and various online banks, usage of government’s much vaunted and expensively delivered online services did not match expectations – either those of government, the press or the public themselves. Government threw a huge party and no-one showed up.

Confronted by a lack of usage, the response was to accelerate the rate of spend – to relive the Field of Dreams analogy, ‘build it and they will come’. So more websites were created, with yet more content and, sometimes, more services.

The Prime Minister had declared a grand vision. He’d asked for simple government, for take up targets to be applied and for citizen-focused and joined-up government. He had, instead, been rewarded by a supply-led approach – ‘if we have it, we’ll put it online’ – and one that questioned almost at every stage whether the PM actually meant 100% online.

At every conference I ever attended from 2001 to 2005, there would be questions raised about why the target had been set and when different targets would be set. Of course, everyone had a different view of which target was right. In response, I imagined John F Kennedy in May 1961 saying “you know, it would be pretty good if we could get somewhere near the moon, give or take a few thousand miles, maybe we could send a dog or a parrot and, maybe, if you think it possible, we could get them all the way back home in a pretty good state – at least able to walk, if not for very long”.

 I cautioned that, even though the PM had said 100%, he didn’t mean that we should suddenly support ‘burial at sea online’ or ‘exhume your grandparents online’ but that he wanted people to choose how they interacted with government and for government, in turn, to adjust its approach to give citizens what they needed – so they could get what they deserved from the public sector.

Surveying the e-government landscape now, at the end of 2005 – right on cue with the Prime Minister’s 2001 goal of having all government services online by this time – things look more or less the same as they did three years ago; much is online, most of it’s hard to find, there’s little in the way of real usage and there’s a distinct lack of joining up.

There are, however, a couple of beacons of hope – signs that something has changed inside the great engine of government. These are the ‘good’ things.

• Direct.gov.uk Building on the early attempts at joined up government pioneered by ukonline.gov.uk (an unfortunate brand name shared by a better known internet service provider), directgov brought together people from across government to write – from scratch – ‘how to’ guides based on who you were and what you wanted to do. Perhaps you were a student looking to understand loans, or maybe a disabled person wanting to claim government benefits, or a mother wanting to send her first child to school. No matter, the site would bring together all the relevant things you needed to know, from all across government, and present them in one place – using consistent language, word style and web site design. I suspect this is what the Prime Minister had in his mind five years ago. It’s not all good news for directgov though – it is still, two years after its launch, unable to bring together transactions – so if you want to claim two different benefits, you’ll have to jump through whichever hoops are placed in your way by the government departments responsible and you’ll have to visit their websites to do it. But, in the last 12 weeks, directgov has averaged well over 1.2 million visitors per month with a peak of over 1.5 million.

 • The Inland Revenue, now HM Revenue and Customs has persevered through the problems of Self Assessment and, more recently, tax credits, gradually putting most of its services online. They’re all brought together through a single website that has broadly consistent branding and look and feel and with a single log-on for all of the services. There’s little, yet at least, in the way of cross-pollination of data – so you can’t springboard from your Self Assessment form to your tax credits claim and have all of your personal data come with you. Nonetheless, it’s likely that HMRC can lay claim to the most used government services across the largest range of clients – corporations, self employed and individual tax payers as well as tax credit claimants. Maybe having a few spectacular failures really does fix the availability of services in the mind of the citizen?

• Neighbourhood Statistics Every so often, someone comes up with a service that just wouldn’t be possible offline. Google is a good example – there’s no simple way to search even a few pages of a text book for a few words, let alone a million or a hundred million (or over 8 billion as they now claim). Neighbourhood Statistics, provided by the Office of National Statistics is one of those services, although perhaps one where only stats geeks need apply for regular use. Tap in your post code and it will bring up a wealth of data covering every aspect of your immediate area it possesses. I was intrigued to see the folks at IdealGovernment.com calling this service a ‘mash up’ the other day, although I’d be surprised if those clever people at the ONS refer to it in this manner.

Put together, the good the bad and the ugly constitute just a sample of what’s available today. For the most part, the ugly sites have moved on, resolved their issues, delivered sets of enhancements one after the other and now offer robust, useful services.

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