Tony Blair's aim that a quarter of all transactions between citizens and government should be capable of electronic delivery by 2002, has "already been substantially met", according to a National Audit Office report published last month.
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However, the NAO found that the Government has lost the lead in Internet use it established with the creation of the open.gov site five years ago, and implicitly criticised the inclusion of the telephone, rather than simply Web-based interaction with the public.
The report, commissioned from the London School of Economics, says that the Web "allows government to provide higher-quality services directly to citizens in innovative ways".
But, it adds, progress across government has been patchy and relatively slow, reflecting a risk-averse response.
The report compared UK government Web sites with both leading-edge private sector firms and overseas governments.
It found that the transition to "more joined-up patterns of information age government will require a fundamental transformation of many central government departments' and agencies' business processes".
The report praised some departments and agencies, including Companies House, the Land Registry and Patent Office, while singling out the Department of Social Security for criticism.
The Inland Revenue was commended for its target of 21% of electronic dealings by 2002, but it was compared with Australia, where 75% of tax returns are already filed electronically.
The NAO also questioned the Government's decision to include systematic phone-based transactions under the heading of electronic government.
"The Department of Social Security handles around 160 million phone calls a year already at an approximate minimum cost of £2.40 per call," the NAO said. If 2% of phone calls could be shifted to searches on a Web site, almost £8m could be saved.
The comparisons with private-sector firms, including Dell, Cisco, Tesco, DHL and BT, showed that greater savings are possible (see box).
The NAO called for the Cabinet Office to boost the adoption of Web technologies by setting "realistic, but demanding targets for growing Web-based interactions and transactions".
Government on the Web, National Audit Office, HMSO, £13.10
Learning from the private sector
Dell - Half a phone call to close a deal
"Dell's rule of thumb before Web use took off was that it took an average of three phone calls to close the sale of a PC. For Internet sales it takes an average of half a phone call to close a sale."
Cisco - Untouched by Cisco hand
"The Cisco ideal is a zero-touch process in which the transaction is so automated that no company employee has to touch a keyboard in the order-filling chain. Cisco estimates that 45 % of its unit volume is directly shipped without a Cisco touch."
Source: Government on the Web, National Audit Office.
Rules of thumb quoted by different firms included:
- An average cost of £3 per phone enquiry
- A cost of £1 per minute for a call-centre enquiry
- An average cost of £2 for each manual tracking or pricing enquiry handled by telephone
For 1998 Cisco estimated cost savings of $550m from five main Web applications, out of a total company cost base of $2,500m in that year.
Source: Government on the Web, National Audit Office