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Last Updated: Friday, 31 October, 2003, 12:43 GMT
Helping hand for e-government
Online delivery of government services is still a long way off, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson, so maybe we should be doing it ourselves.

Palace of Westminster
Promised land of electronic government still far off
I have just received a letter from the Inland Revenue, asking me to submit my tax return over the internet. They reckon it is easy, simple and, now that they have fixed the problems they had last year, secure.

Unfortunately it is a bit late, as I sent the paper version of my return to them on 28 September so that they would calculate my tax bill for me.

It is rather disturbing that they did not actually realise that my return was already in, but I will assume that it is because they have got a lot of letters to open rather than that they have not managed to integrate their databases, or that my form got lost in the post.

But the letter was yet another example of how we have failed to reach the promised land of electronic government in which departments work together, offering seamlessly integrated web-based services to shiny happy citizens sitting at their gleaming computers and flat-screen displays.

The reality is a disparate collection of poorly-used services which often fail to meet people's real needs.

Despite the vast amounts of money that have been spent, and the undoubted technical skills and ability of many of the people working on them, few government websites seem to do what they are supposed to do - meet the needs of their users. And even those that do are hard to find and under-used.

Difficult to use

This is not just personal bias, although my own experience of using government sites has certainly not been positive.

The Society of IT Managers has just published Better Connected: Advice to citizens, a report into how well government sites meet the needs of people who use them for help and advice on housing, debt and health, and it seems to show that the situation is worse than even I thought.

Bill Thompson
Putting up a great website is worthless if nobody can find it, and government information online does not have the advantage of leaflet racks in post offices and council offices to bring it to people's attention
Before writing the report, they carried out a survey in collaboration with Citizens Advice, the network of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

It looked at two aspects of government websites: how well they answer the sort of questions that people visiting Citizens Advice Bureaux ask most often, and how well the sites rated with Google when searches were made for relevant subjects, like disability benefit.

They tested 10 central government sites, including the main portal, UKOnline, the Department for Work and Pensions and NHS Direct. They also investigated 16 local government sites.

The researchers found that although there is a lot of information on the sites, it is not well signposted, so that finding relevant help is made unnecessarily difficult.

Government sites often do not rate highly in Google, either, so that while a specific search for a term like income support will go to the right place (the Department of Work and Pensions), looking for debt advice might lead to a loan company or a news story about Third World debt.

The problem here seems not to be lack of funding for government sites, but the failure to realise that the information published by a ministry or a local authority has to be located within millions of other sites and billions of other documents.

Putting up a great website is worthless if nobody can find it, and government information online does not have the advantage of leaflet racks in post offices and council offices to bring it to people's attention.

DIY government

Another problem identified in the report is the lack of any real sense that government sites are working together to coordinate their activity, index each other and generally provide the links and connections that would allow visitors to find their way around easily.

Perhaps the core of the problem is that government tends to think big - getting everyone online by 2005, making all services available electronically at the same time - but big projects are almost impossible to manage, often fail to achieve their core objectives and have such long timescales to delivery that the initial excitement has vanished by the time they arrive.

Man using keyboard
Time to take government in our own hands?
Realising this, the loose collection of e-democracy and e-government activists called VoxPolitics has launched a new project this week, aimed at finding smaller, deliverable projects which could transform the relationship between citizens and the state.

Called MySociety, it is the brainchild of Tom Steinberg, a friend of mine, but it is such an excellent idea that I had to write about it even if he had not been pestering me about it for weeks.

MySociety is a cross between an ideas generator and a funding body. They are asking people to put forward ideas for internet-based services or programs that could make a difference to how people engage with government or government services.

The inspiration comes from FaxYourMP, a small-scale, voluntary effort which lets anyone send a free fax to their MP.

At the moment they are looking for ideas, and have some startup funding so that they can demonstrate that it is a workable model.

They really want to do things which can start small but grow very large with little extra effort or money, reflecting the bottom-up approach which built GNU/Linux and other open source and free software, rather than the top-down big project approach that we see when central government gets involved.

It will be interesting to discover whether there are enough good ideas out there to make MySociety viable, but even if it only manages to persuade some of the project managers, site architects and e-government champions within central and local government to think differently about what they are doing, it will be worthwhile.

Because all the research so far indicates that the current approach to e-government is simply not working.

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

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