E-gov success depends on Whitehall mandarins

In March 2000, Tony Blair enthusiastically brought forward ambitious targets set the previous year to make all government...

In March 2000, Tony Blair enthusiastically brought forward ambitious targets set the previous year to make all government services available online. In the heady dotcom euphoria, everything must have seemed possible - at least to policy makers and think tanks - as they moved deadlines in a cavalier fashion from 2008 to 2005.

Users knew it could not be done by technology alone - success required buy-in from top civil servants still entrenched in their silo mentality.

For some months now, semi-official messages have been seeping through saying that the 2005 target is aspirational. We now hear the real target is to get only about 35 services online by then.

The irony is that cross-departmental government e-collaboration is perfectly realisable, as the growing patchwork of pilot projects funded by the Invest to Save Initiative is demonstrating.

One splendid example is the I-Bio portal for the biotech community, which allows data mining of text, graphics, audio and video policy and research information across 14 government departments and research councils. It also spiders into 230 biotechnology websites, enables information retrieval an order of magnitude more effective than Google, and is free of charge.

This was achieved recently by enterprising civil servant Mark Philips. He got high-level buy-in from Lord Sainsbury, scrounged server space, won favours from suppliers, and delivered to time to a £500,000 budget.

As with any cross-government project, he got the cold shoulder at first. Departments only became co-operative when they realised they would not have to do much.

From prototype to launch took six months - a key challenge was simplifying the portal's front-end to ensure that the biotech community would use it.

If only this sort of individual enterprise could be scaled up, we would have a lot more inspirational programmes rather than aspirational ones. But that requires the will at mandarin level.


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