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Last Updated:  Friday, 11 April, 2003, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
E-government begins with you
House of Lords interior, BBC
E-government is slipping down the policy agenda
Technology consultant Bill Thompson worries that we are losing the e-government plot.

If you live in Canada then there's a good chance you've used one of the wide range of government services on offer, whether to pay bills, file tax returns or apply for a gun licence.

According to a newly published study of global e-government from consultants Accenture, with the snappy title e-government Leadership: Engaging the Customer, over half of Canadian adults have used one or more e-government services, and Canada is leading the world in the adoption and use of internet technology in government.

If you live in the UK, however, then you are much less likely to have turned to a .gov.uk website for help or assistance - only one in 10 of us have ever bothered to use any of the available services.

Falling behind

In fact, over the last year the UK has dropped from sixth to eighth place in the international ranking of e-governments, and our progress has slowed down significantly.

Smaller countries like Finland are doing far better and introducing new services, especially transactional ones, which let users do something instead of just getting information.

Bill Thompson, technology consultant
there is a strong case to be made for getting someone senior, with a title to match, who can knock heads together about e-government and how it is done properly
Bill Thompson
It is not only UK central government that has problems. The local government Improvement and Development Agency, IDeA, has just criticised the way local authorities take on projects to deliver services electronically.

In Government Computing News, IDeA consultant Fred Baron says there is a danger of getting 'bogged down' in the intricacies of the project instead of focusing on providing a good service to people. While there are some examples of good practice, he says, there is a need to look for projects that will make a real difference to the public.

Cutting cash

The bad news about UK e-government comes soon after the budget for the office of e-envoy Andrew Pinder has been cut by a quarter.

Responsibility for many of the big cross-departmental projects has been taken away from him and given back to the departments concerned. Given their poor track record and the evident unwillingness of any part of Whitehall to give up power and influence just to make our lives easier, this is a worrying step backward.

Things could get worse if Pinder decides the time has come to return to industry after two years in the firing line. The prime minister may decide that it is not worth replacing him, and distribute his team and their remaining responsibilities around the Cabinet Office's delivery team, making e-government just another aspiration for ministers and their departments.

Canadian flag, BBC
Canada leads the world in e-government
While our e-envoy may not have set the world on fire, or inspired a radical and innovative approach to e-government, he is at least a figurehead with an office, a budget and team of committed people pushing in the right direction.

The problem may have been that he has too little power, and the wrong job title.

In Canada the government has its own "chief information officer" and approaches the problems in the same way many successful businesses do. There is a willingness to accept that the internet opens up genuinely radical possibilities for changing the way government interacts with citizens, rather than just giving every department a poorly-designed and badly maintained website.

Testing times

There is also an understanding that this creates dangers as well as opportunities, with a clear privacy policy and an attempt to engage with issues like data sharing between departments instead of just going ahead with it and hoping it all works.

A government CIO sounds more dynamic and important than an e-envoy, whose title that smacks of the last days of Empire, diplomacy and visits to strange lands where gunboats can always be called in to quell the natives.

I am not normally in favour of treating government as if it is just a special type of company, or in re-labelling citizens as "customers". Too often in the past it has been used as an excuse to remove any form of democratic accountability, cut staff and services and distance us from any real relationship with our elected representatives.

Old Inland Revenue logo, Inland Revenue
Tax offices are keen to use the web
But I think there is a strong case to be made for getting someone senior, with a title to match, who can knock heads together about e-government and how it is done properly.

Of course, we already have a minister with responsibility for "the Cabinet Office's work in leading and supporting e-Transformation in Government" - it's Douglas Alexander MP and he has totally failed to make any impact at all. He needs to go before he does any more damage.

The time has come for the prime minister to put a serious political figure in the role of chief information officer for the government, with a seat at Cabinet and a roving brief to ensure everyone else does what is needed.

I would suggest bringing Peter Mandelson in from exile to do it, but I think he would be labelled "chief misinformation officer" and fail to be taken seriously.

But whoever it is, we need them - and fast, if our current progress is anything to go by.

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

UK 'lags in e-government'
25 Feb 03  |  Technology
Public 'turned off by e-government'
13 Dec 02  |  Politics
E-government site proves a hit
06 Nov 02  |  Technology
Hard work ahead for online rulers
08 Apr 03  |  Technology
E-envoy left in the slow lane
19 Nov 02  |  Technology

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