Open all hours
The Government hopes its new portal, UK Online, will take away the red tape that historically separates it from us citizens. John Charlton thinks otherwise.

While playing with my corporate abacus during the adult episode of Hollyoaks, I calculated that we'll soon be into the sixth year of Blairism.

Or, if you consider that John Major morphed into the Great Tone that would be the 13th year of slightly right-of-centre politics that have seen this great country of ours stride purposefully to a brighter tomorrow.

Part of this brighter tomorrow, and something which both Tone and Mr Major are/were both frightfully keen on, was bringing government closer to the citizenry. For John Major this took the form of charters which contained stated levels of service, which the man waiting for the Clapham omnibus could expect from sundry government agencies.

Most departments of state were supposed to have charters, which took the form of mission statements, followed by mission impossible objectives, such as running trains on time. Who among us can forget the cones hotline? This provided a phone-a-moan service for stressed-out motorists.

Grumblings
It was the Major response to constant grumblings and carpings from the motoring public about the state of Britain's highways, which were/are/always-will-be sunk in roadworks, enclosed by rubber cones.

Why anyone in authority thought the jammed motoring public would be calmed by this measure is, with the benefit of zero hindsight, utterly astonishing. The cones hotline service was outsourced to IBM. I called them in the summer of 1996.

A pleasant lady told me they'd had one call in three months. Tone has taken Majorism's charter idea quite a few steps further into the realm of open government - clearly a ridiculous idea as most subjects (we are not citizens) clearly don't give much of a stuff who runs the country as long as it isn't Jim Davidson or Prince Edward.

Part of this 'open-all-hours' push has taken inspiration from e-business, and will, should everything go to plan, take the form of a government portal, UK Online. Through Internet access and Web design, the Government wants to take red tape and bureaucracy out of the 'interface' between itself and us.

Indeed, Tone has set a date - he wants many government services to be available electronically by 2005.

But, given that in the great e-game not all participants are equal, does this not run the risk of creating an e-elite among the ranks of - and I know the term sounds like a creation of Robespierre's after a bad night on the Committee for Public Safety - citizen-users?

Despite the hoop-la about Internet and Web usage growing faster than Man United's goals-against column, Net and Web expertise will still be the preserve of the educated and well-informed especially if it costs to log on to e-government.con.uk.

And as information and the manipulation of it is 'power,' can this development be healthy for democracy?

In the interests of in-depth research I undertook a straw poll in the queue for the number 11 bus last week and discovered that what most people want in their dealings with 'open government' is someone who will pick up the phone, and give straight answers.

Cloud-cuckoo land it's true, but we can dream.

This is something that, of all bodies, the Inland Revenue, has taken to heart - call them and someone will answer the phone. The boys at the Rev will still screw you, but at least they'll talk to you at the same time. Yes, there's something about the voice of a bureaucrat.

Citizen portals
Naturally, those behind 'citizen portals' have been doing the usual research into what will make them user friendly, and how the information should be structured so that Mrs Kravatt at number 24b High Street, Anytown, can cut straight to the heart of e-government at a click.

The answer, in the form of 'life episodes', is something like the Les Battersby story line in Corrie, I can hardly wait for it. Life episodes structure information according to age range, so at age 16-18 it's how to sign on, or find a place on a media studies course. You get the picture?

We're now up to episode nine - pensions and retirement. In many areas of Tone's new cool Britain this will, no doubt, tell the 65-pluses how to live on the paltry pension that comes their way, when it's safe to venture out to buy remaindered parsnips, and how to keep warm on five quid a week. Plus detailed information on how to pass the time while lying on a hospital trolley in A&E.

Yes, in on-line life episode 10, information will be king. If only efficient services were emperors.

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This was first published in March 2002

 

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