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Wednesday, 20 November, 2002, 16:30 GMT
UK slow to get online
Man sits at keyboard
Engaging citizens online will be crucial
The UK Government has admitted that there is much more to do if it is to hit its targets for creating a knowledge-based economy.

At an e-Summit meeting in London on Tuesday, there was a degree of back-patting but also an acknowledgement that the project to put Britain online was far from completion.

We are doing well, but not well enough

Prime Minister Tony Blair
In his speech, announcing the rollout of broadband to every school and doctor's surgery in the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair said there was a long way to go to realise the full potential of technology.

"My message is blunt and simple: we are doing well, but not well enough," he said.

Failed target

He is in no doubt though about the importance of utilising technology.

"I consider the question of how we harness the potential of technological change to be the fundamental economic and social challenge of our future," he said.

The government had set itself the target of being the best place for e-commerce by 2002 and, according to a report from market researchers Booz Allen Hamilton it has failed in this objective coming second to the US.

One of the challenges ahead will be persuading firms in the UK, especially small ones, to get involved in e-business.

"It is time to move beyond e-mail and a web presence," said Trade and Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

Getting businesses switched over to broadband has so far largely failed with only around 8% of the UK's one million small and medium-sized businesses having a high-speed net connection.

Putting citizen first

E-democracy needs to be connected to the e-government agenda

Dr Ian Kearns, IPPR
The next big target for government will be putting all government services online by 2005.

Here too there has been a change of policy.

"It is no longer enough to have services enabled by 2005, we have to drive up the number of people using them," e-Minister Douglas Alexander told the conference.

"We have to re-engineer services around the needs of the citizen," he added.

The magnitude of doing this across 20 disparate government departments and hundreds of local authorities cannot be underestimated he added, especially when the government conducts an estimated five billion transactions each year.

A series of reports, including the Booz Allen study, have accused the government of rushing to put services online without any real consideration for what users will do with them.

There needs to be a sea-change to convince more than the current one in 10 citizens to interact with the government on the internet.

Dr Ian Kearns, head of the digital society programme at think-tank IPPR (Institute of Public Policy Research), has some advice for the government.

"The government needs to have a closer relationship with people in terms of the design and service delivery of websites. E-democracy needs to be connected to the e-government agenda," he said.

Most of the speakers agreed that the modernisation of government had to happen alongside its e-government policy.

Dr Kearns suggested the government set up a public interest company to persuade citizens to get involved with government online.

"Public services are social justice in action," he said.

Dancing with consumers

"Transport congestion, education attainments, health service improvements are all issues that can be tackled on the web," he said.

It was also crucial to make sure that there was universal web access as the people most likely to need e-services were those most likely to be cut off from the digital revolution, said Dr Kearns.

E-envoy Andrew Pinder argued that the UK had already achieved universal access thanks to the 6,000 UK Online centres and a raft of kiosks in high streets and railway stations set up by the government to provide public net access points.

All did agree though that the citizen must be put first in the development of e-services.

Talking from the perspective of a local authority, the chief executive of Liverpool Council, David Henshaw, advised the government to let citizens take the lead.

"We still believe we know best but the reality is we are dancing with customers. Let them lead and enjoy the dance," he said.

See also:

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