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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November 2003, 10:58 GMT
Sexing up e-government
Dot.life - Where tech and life collide, every Monday
By Alfred Hermida
BBC News Online technology editor

There is much talk of putting public services online to make life easier for us. But what do people actually want from e-government?

Houses in Silicon Valley
Property values are available online in Silicon valley
If the experience of one of the most connected parts of the US is anything to go by, it is to find out more about the street you live in.

In Santa Clara county in California's Silicon Valley, the most popular service is one that lets you find out how much your neighbour's property is worth.

"This is our most used service as it is like gossip," said Satish Ajmani, the county's chief information officer.

Now the county's website average page views regularly top one million per day.

Before Santa Clara rebuilt its net site in 2001 with the help of hi-tech firm Vignette, page views rarely topped 900 a day.

Mr Ajmani credits the success of the portal to the way the county approached the issue of e-government.

"We looked at what people needed when something happened in their lives," he told BBC News Online, "like getting married or being involved in a car accident."

This has paid off in an area where 80% of the 1.7 million population is online and expect to be able to pay their taxes, apply for county jobs or even apply to adopt a child.

"You absolutely have to think about the customer and what the customer wants," said Liz Gorgue, the county's self-declared e-government evangelist.

"People come to the website with the same expectations that they have when they visit Amazon."

Work together

Part of the appeal of the site is the way it seamlessly offers services from 50 different county departments in a one-stop shop for people living in the valley.

But getting different departments to work together was also the hardest part. It is a challenge facing officials as they move towards the nirvana of e-government.

It takes someone who is going to champion e-government as it takes a lot of political capital
Liz Gorgue, Santa Clara county
In the UK, the government is rushing to put most public services online by a deadline of 2005. It is spending more than 12bn on information technology this year alone.

The stakes are high, given the amount of money involved. Experts estimate that cancelled and over-budget technology project cost the UK tax-payer 1.5bn in the last six years.

While the government says it is confident of meeting the 2005 deadline, critics say it needs to look further ahead.

"The priority was 'let's go online'," said Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maoi. "Now we are looking at how these services work efficiently and compliment each other."

The talk is now of joined-up government, which is a far more difficult task then simply letting you do your tax return online.

"Some departments have enjoyed substantial independence in the past and they might have problems in relieving themselves of some of their power," explained Mr Di Maoi.

He had a straightforward message for Tony Blair; set up an e-government tsar with the power to push through the project.

This has worked in Santa Clara, where the move towards online government was backed by the highest levels in the county.

"It takes someone who is going to champion e-government as it takes a lot of political capital," said Ms Gorgue.

Official PR

All of this makes no difference unless people are willing to use the net to deal with officials.

Inland Revenue sign
You can file your taxes online in the UK
In the UK, this could be the biggest challenge, reckons Coenraad van der Poel of EzGov Europe, which has helped put the Court Service and the Inland Revenue online.

The problem, as he sees it, is the low level of trust in the government. Again Tony Blair should look abroad for advice, in this case to the city state of Singapore.

"What it has done really well is not just putting its applications online but it has hired marketing experts to sell the benefits to the public," said Mr van der Poel.

"That is so far ahead from what we've seen here. There is a real connection between the public and government."

Although the Inland Revenue Online is one positive UK example from which we can learn more, said Mr van der Poel.

Technology has been used to reach out to people, but also the value of such a service has been clearly pointed out to the public.

The officials from Santa Clara also have a few words of advice for their UK counterparts, suggesting a culture change in government might be needed.

"You need a strategy for e-democracy," said Mr Ajmani. "You need to get the public involved in decision-making. This takes a very long time for elected people to be comfortable with."

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25 Feb 03 |  Technology

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