eGovernment: Principles and Progress – The View from the Centre
By John Healey MP, Economic Secretary to the Treasury
This article was first published in eGov Monitor Weekly http://www.egovmonitor.com/newsletter/signup.asp
It is now over two years since the Prime Minister announced the goal of making 100% of Government services available electronically by 2005. So how are we progressing? The latest survey by the Office of the e-Envoy showed that 52% of services are online now, with 71% forecast to be online by the end of 2002. This progress is encouraging, and there is no doubt that the 2005 target has helped to galvanise government into action.
Here at the Treasury we are doing our bit. We have had a presence on the internet since 1994 and have built an award-winning website which provides the public with the latest news and information. The latest incarnation of our site was launched in November 2001 and on the day that the Pre-Budget Report was released it supplied more than 400,000 documents to visitors of the site. The site currently has around 6000 visitors per day increasing to more than 50,000 visitors around Budget time.
Of course, the potential of e-government does not stop at the provision of information by relatively small departments like the Treasury. The true challenge lies in improving the way that the public does business with government. Indeed, while the statistics are encouraging, the majority of services currently delivered electronically by government departments are informational in nature. Whilst provision of information is important, transformation of transactions, conducted in the millions between government and the public, will do much more to improve service delivery. E-enabling such services is a major challenge of the immediate future.
The Prime Minister has spoken of using digital channels to ‘deliver better services to the citizen 24 hours a day, faster, more convenient and more personalised’. Through electronic service delivery, government has the opportunity to provide quality services that are easier to use and designed around the needs of the customer. Attractive, well-designed services will be more convenient for citizens and less costly for business than traditional means of service delivery. At the same time, government can provide these services more efficiently by using technology to connect the whole delivery process. The challenge is to join-up delivery organisations, as well as improving the interface with the public.
Whilst progress must be made on all fronts to achieve the 2005 target, it is right that some critical services – for example, those that are heavily used – are developed with particular care and that resources are focused on services for which e-enablement is likely to produce significant improvements in terms of the quality and efficiency of delivery.
Spending Review 2002
These principles were cemented in the Chancellor’s Spending Review in July in which it was announced that the Government will spend nearly £3 billion over the three years to 2005-06 to develop e-services further.
Crime is one of the government’s key delivery priorities and the e-services figure includes resources for the creation of a ‘CJS IT Joint Budget’ that will place IT at the heart of Criminal Justice System modernisation. These funds will underpin the roll-out of modern software and hardware across the CJS and allow substantial progress towards developing modern case file applications and linking up various parts of the CJS.
Electronic service delivery will also play a large part in meeting the government’s objectives in health and education. These were also priority areas in the Spending Review, and the resources they received should help to provide for delivery of the IT infrastructure in the education and skills sector, e-learning, electronic patient records and so on.
There were also substantial amounts for Customs & Excise and Inland Revenue, among others, designed to improve electronic interactions between government and business. This is a clear priority as businesses have a high rate of internet access and many are already accustomed to conducting transactions electronically. Following the Carter review, the Government has proposed to make electronic payroll returns compulsory by 2010. Under these plans, large firms (250+ employees) will be required to file electronically by 2004-05, and firms with 50+ employees by 2005-06. Incentive payments to encourage smaller employers, with fewer than 50 employees, to file electronically will commence from 2004-05.
We will only know that these services are meeting our requirements if people are choosing to use them. A high level of take-up will be one of the key measures of a successful service and is essential if resources are to be freed up within government and reallocated to other priorities. Delivery organisations will therefore need to draw up an overall strategy for the take-up of their e-services that complements their delivery plans. Such strategies will need to be firmly based on a clear understanding of the characteristics, needs and interests of service users and on ensuring that services are developed in ways that directly address these needs.
Above all, it is crucial to ensure that electronic services are attractive, easy-to-use, secure and more convenient for the customer. If this is the case then citizens and businesses will want to carry out their transactions with government electronically and high rates of take-up can be achieved naturally.
However, government must also ensure that electronic services are universally accessible – to groups with special requirements as well as those who do not have the skills or resources to interact effectively online. Forming partnerships with intermediaries in the private and voluntary sectors will be an important way to promote take-up and to reach citizens who are at risk of being excluded from the benefits of e-government. It will also be important for traditional means of interacting with government to remain available for those who need to use them.
Government is complex enough. But transforming it into a customer-focused, e-enabled organisation is even more complex and challenging. The recent Spending Review was crucial for providing both the resources and the strategic direction for getting services online. And the framework is now clear – a focus on important transactional services and a change in the design and delivery of services that puts the citizen or business as customer first.
Ó KAM Ltd 2002