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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 07:10 GMT 08:10 UK
E-government 'needs rebooting'
Man on keyboard
Legislation needs to catch up with internet age
Computer literate people should gradually be forced to go online to use public services, says a leading think tank.

Savings from making the middle classes do things like file their tax returns online can help improve other services for those uncomfortable with computers, says the Work Foundation.

In a new report, the think tank says the government should downgrade its target of getting all public services online by 2005.

The target should not be scrapped completely, it says, but the top priority must go to increasing the number of people using services through the internet.

User focus

At a reception to launch the report on Wednesday, author Noah Curthoys said the best way to improve internet usage was to focus on those people most comfortable and skilled at using the internet.

Job Centre
All government services are due to go online by 2005
Research suggested that was more affluent, younger people in full-time employment, he explained.

Instead, it was older people from poorer backgrounds who were less computer literate and also were the greatest users of public services.

Mr Curthoys acknowledged the idea of compulsion was controversial and, as with London's motorist congestion charges, it would not always be necessary.

But his report says: "The logical issue for rebuilding government is the introduction of greater incentives, and greater compulsion.

"E-government currently offers neither a bonus for use nor a penalty for avoidance."

'No e-ghetto'

The report goes further, pushes for wider reforms, both putting services online and rejigging the way government deals with them.

It suggests that the "ghettoisation" of e-government should end and it should instead seen as part of the broader drive for "joined-up government" and reformed public services.

Mr Curthoys says the government has invested in and started to build online services.

But evidence of success is scattered, successes not trumpeted loudly enough and perceptions of failure reinforced.

His report adds: "Usage and delivery of online services remain patchy. To be blunt, British e-government needs rebooting."

The idea of compelling people to take up online services got short shrift from the some of the other experts at the launch.

Val Shawcross, e-envoy at the Greater London Authority, said: "I think that would be wholly wrong in a democratic society."

But she backed other parts of the report, saying the public sector needed to use its partnerships with private companies more effectively.

Ms Shawcross added: "We always knew really that the rather narrow targets of 2005 was unintelligent.

"It was a very rough boot in the right direction."


Ian Kearns, from think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, said the target should now be scrapped completely as it had done of its job of kick-starting initial efforts.

He too argued against compulsion, saying choice was the best way of improving take up by focusing on core services online.

Instead, he suggested a public interest company be set up to help get people who are not using the internet online.

If such companies got people in the long term online and using e-government services then the savings made would go back to the firm to help it continue its work, said Mr Kearns.

Steve Beet, from Pricewaterhouse Coopers, said the compulsion idea was important for helping to change attitudes.

But he thought incentives were a better way to improve take-up.

"If you offer a high quality service - and we do not in e-government - people would migrate to using it," he said.

There was, however, some support for the compulsion idea at the launch

One observer argued it was "dishonest" for government to say it would use paper communications channels when they were much more expensive.

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