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banner Monday, 27 August, 2001, 09:27 GMT 10:27 UK
Government starts with E
A man begging in London
The people that need more help tend not to be online
The UK Government wants to develop meaningful online relationships with the British public. How is it getting on, asks BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Government is everywhere. No matter what you do or where you go its policies will inform and shape everything you do and come into contact with.

And now Government is planning to extend its reach even further. Both central and local government are moving away from the real into the virtual and finding even more ways to snuggle up to citizens, keep in touch with them and find out more about them.

Tony Blair has long declared the aim of making all government services available electronically by 2005, an ambitious target for an institution more likely to be mired in paper and drowning in red tape than careering carefree down the fast lane of the information superhighway.

But the initiatives designed to meet the 2005 deadline are coming thick and fast and soon you might not be able to escape the electronic hand or eye of government.

Opening the gate

One of the most visible parts of this strategy is the Government Gateway that will eventually be the main site through which people will interact with central government departments.

In the early days of the gateway it courted controversy for its insistence on using Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser because it was the only one that supported the types of digital certificates, that can be used as a secure identification system, that it preferred.

"The people that the council want to bring back into the community typically do not have online access

Guy Wolfenden, Cityspace

But the gateway is by no means the only place that government is keen to catch you.

It is also asking local authorities, largely because they are closer to citizens, to increase the number of ways that people can get hold of information or interact with them.

Almost all local authorities have been running websites for a long time that hold basic information about boroughs and the services available. Some, such as Bracknell Forest, have gone further and are starting to use digital identities to let citizens interact with them.

All local authorities had until 31 July to submit an Implementing Electronic Government statement that would be use to create a national co-ordinated strategy due to be unveiled in the Autumn.

Community action

But the problem with a website is that the poor and disadvantaged who typically have more reason to call on council services do not have the cash to buy a PC and support a web habit or sign up for interactive TV services.

"The people that the council want to bring back into the community typically do not have online access," said Guy Wolfenden, an e-government expert from media firm Cityspace.

Sign for polling booth
Good citizenship doesn't end here

Now many local authorities are turning to kiosks and information points in a bid to reach out to those people who do not have access to a PC or a TV that has a web link.

"Kiosks are socially inclusive," said Mr Wolfenden, "everyone can get access to them and they are available 24 hours per day."

One of the biggest kiosk networks is being installed across Westminster in London which is planning to use 30 of them dotted around the city as places that people can find information on public transport, routes to landmarks, pay parking fines, or even find out about local job vacancies.

Councillor Robert Davis, chairman of Customer Services at Westminster City Council, said it gets more than 3,000 calls per day from residents.

"Up to 80% of the calls can be answered in 2 minutes rather than require the response of a professional that takes a long time," he said.

Like all authorities Westminster has been set targets for the electronic delivery of services and its use of kiosks will contribute towards that he said. Research has established that the information points are used by a wide cross section of the population, not just the affluent.

Mr Wolfenden said 70% of the users of the kiosks are from the C, D and E social groups, which are typically the poorer, less well-educated members of society. Up to a third of the users are unemployed and use the kiosks to hunt for jobs in the local area.

Just as important as putting the kiosks in place is the work that has to go into streamlining council processes to make it possible to complete them in a few minutes on a kiosk.

Cityspace I+ Kiosk
A Cityspace kiosk in action

"You cannot just take a manual form and put it on the web or in a kiosk and expect it to work," said Mr Wolfenden. Often the work that goes into this streamlining helps a council streamline its own ways of working.

Central government is also looking to evangelise electronic government and citizenry via the Wired Up Communities initiative. This is investing 10 million pounds across seven communities including 14,000 homes in a bid to overcome the digital divide.

E is for education too

The part of the initiative targeting schools is being looked after by the E-learning Foundation which by that same date of 2005 aims to give school kids personal access, by one device or another, to electronic services and information.

The hope is that by enthusing the kids and raising their ideas on what to expect from local and central government they will create a more involved and supportive citizenry.

"What the government provides and what the future citizens expect will play off each other," said Anne Petrey, one of the co-ordinators of the E-Learning Foundation.

The foundation is co-ordinating the creation of local educational initiatives that initially are aimed at schools and schoolchildren but will gradually drag parents in too. "Adults may not do it for themselves but will do it for their children," said Ms Petrey.

But to be frank we are all children when it comes to just how much effect this will have on our lives.

See also:

02 Feb 01 | Sci/Tech
E-government starts with a D
03 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Whitehall drive for e-government
27 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Digital exclusion still a problem
30 May 00 | South Asia
Fast track for Indian internet
04 May 01 | Features
Court in the act
19 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Only the net can save politics
24 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Bracknell Forest goes virtual
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