Tony Blair has placed great store on the development of e-government, but all his plans could founder on the ability and willingness of the public to accept new channels, writes Mike Simons.
Ministers face a difficult problem - how to promote new delivery methods while not contributing to the already existing "digital divide". The issue is addressed in a new report - Citizens' Preferences: Measuring the Acceptability of E-channels - from the independent consultancy Kable.
The report collated existing research, largely from the private sector, and applied its lessons for public sector business, planning and policy strategy managers.
A key, if obvious, finding was that all channels are not equal. Kable warned that there is an insufficient research base on the electronic delivery of many services. This means that organisations should be prepared to use pilot studies to ascertain characteristics of different modes of delivery before committing heavy resources.
The report said, "Channels will increasingly be mediatedÉ by Internet service providers, search engines, content providers...so plan for partners with their own commercial and social agendas."
It urges service providers to carefully match transactions to channels and to categorise channels by social inclusion, types of citizen, types of transaction and channel characteristics. "Plan for multiple channels best suited to different transactions for different groups," warns Kable.
Other key points highlighted in the report are the fact that negotiations conducted by e-mail often fail because people do not share information and that ease of use is critical in getting acceptance of e-channels.
Above all, the report emphasises security. It states, "All research shows that security is the key inhibitor to the take up of money-based transactions: so make security a top priority - not only the security of the system but also the citizen's faith in that security."
Kable argues that the development of e-channels offers real opportunities for government, but adds, "What has driven the private sector to adopt e-channels is the need to cut costs and ensure profitability. These sectors have not waited for customer demand, rather they are driving customers to cheaper delivery methods. While central and local Government are motivated by other concerns, the need to cut costs is high on their agenda. Thus the need to drive users to take up e-channels is just as important."
The research found that two-in-five respondents could be persuaded to use e-channels, although half would need incentives or support to take them up.
The challenge facing the public sector is to drive e-government forward while still keeping open existing channels for those who need them.
Many of the findings and conclusions in Kable's report, taken individually, might seem unremarkable, but pulled together they make essential reading for anyone considering putting services online.
To obtain a copy of the report, Citizens Preferences: Measuring the Acceptability of E-channels, write to Kable, 55 Charterhouse Street, London EC1M 6HA.