Learn from the Criminal Records Bureau debacle. Give users and the public what they want or they will switch off, says Colin Beveridge
"Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?". You may recognise that poignant statement as a poster slogan that adorned teenagers’ bedroom walls across the world since the late 1960s.
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Perhaps it’s time we brought it up to date and changed the slogan to “Suppose we gave them an e-gov website and nobody came?”
Over the past year or so there has been mounting criticism of the Criminal Record Bureau and its agent, Capita, for their poor performance in processing personal background checks, particularly in respect of applications from school teachers and workers.
In response to the criticism, we have had a succession of explanations from the bureau, and many of these excuses have focused on technical or organisational problems.
So, it is no surprise to hear their latest justification for the continuing delays. This week we are informed that they expected far more applications to be submitted online through their website, therefore the vast majority of applications are still received through the traditional postal system - and frequently batched up into bulk applications.
Good business for the Royal Mail, I suppose. But not good news for the CRB and Capita plaintively watching their e-mail systems for the anticipated flood of electronic submissions.
Not fair, is it? All that time and money spent building a web infrastructure and nobody wants to use it.
But the CRB website is only the tip of the iceberg.
Across the country every local government organisation is frantically working towards their obligation to provide all services online by next year. No doubt, in another two years we will be hearing a succession of councils complaining that uptake of electronic services has been disappointing.
The simple truth is that a website without traffic is a waste of cyberspace - it may as well not be there if nobody uses it. And, unless there is a swift and radical re-evaluation of the e-goverment programme, we will, inevitably, find ourselves with a fully connected e-government infrastructure that is completely disconnected from the public.
Forget about joined-up government fantasies, it’s time for some joined-up thinking reality.
We need to work out what will really motivate people towards electronic delivery of services, rather than steadfastly persisting with the blind faith policy of “build it and they will come”.
Haven’t we got enough evidence yet to understand that most people are not really up for e-government because there is no benefit to them for using the new channels? The public never will take up these wonderful new facilities unless they can see real and immediate value to themselves, either financially or in terms of personal convenience.
I believe that it’s time to stop getting carried away with the technical wizardry and to spend some quality time thinking about how to motivate the target audience.
How about a loyalty card scheme to reward good e-citizens with financial credits for using online services?
I’m sure that the chancellor of the exchequer would support this scheme in his forthcoming budget – we could even call the credits “Brownie points”.
What do you think?
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Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org