E-government faces barriers

A new survey of the public sector found enthusiasm for Tony Blair's e-government plans, but it also revealed significant...

A new survey of the public sector found enthusiasm for Tony Blair's e-government plans, but it also revealed significant problems, Mike Simons reports

British Telecom yesterday (Wednesday) published the first authoritative comparison of public-sector readiness to deliver services electronically.

Smartcards, Web portals and interactive TV will be among a raft of technologies used to focus government services on the needs of the public, rather than government departments, Jack Cunningham said last year at the launch of the white paper Modernising Government.

The eventual goal is to be able to deliver all government services electronically by 2005.

The report, E-Government: Ready or Not, found widespread enthusiasm and potential for e-government but also highlighted significant problems ahead. Market research specialist Mori polled 450 key policy makers from central and local government, as well as the health, education, civil and judiciary sectors. In addition, the public's attitude towards e-government was measured by the Henley Centre in interviews with 30 families.

The report shows that nine out of 10 senior managers believe e-service delivery will have a major impact on their work. However, there are major variations in the level of confidence about meeting government targets to provide all services electronically by 2005.

While three-quarters of those driving IT strategy in Whitehall say they will reach the Government's target, confidence falls away dramatically the further people are away from the corridors of power, with only a quarter in health and local government (26% and 27%) saying they will succeed.

Another major area of concern, highlighted by key decision makers in central government, members of the public and survey sponsor BT, is the risk of social exclusion through lack of access to technology and low IT-literacy levels.

Local government

As well as facing the challenge of delivering e-government with very limited resources, the local government sector also has to meet the challenge presented by the Best Value regime.

Almost half those surveyed (47%) thought their organisation would find it difficult to meet the Government's target for online service delivery by 2005, and 15% said their organisation was certain not to comply.

The key benefits of e-government were seen as faster service delivery (48%) and improved service delivery (31%).

Education

In the education sector a lack of IT skills among teachers compounds the difficulties of delivering the targets set by central government.

Most education strategists and head teachers (79%) were aware of the target to connect all educational institutions to the National Grid for Learning by 2002. Some (6%) said they had already hit it but 42% anticipated difficulties.

The main benefits of e-education were seen as improved sharing of education resources (37%) and better access to training and teaching materials (35%). More than any other service examined, education thought that increased expense was the main disadvantage of electronic service delivery - 30% of respondents cited cost as the main disadvantage of e-delivery.

Health

Funding and lack of resources are the key issues in health, mentioned by 41% of managers.

About a quarter (26%) were fairly confident about meeting the 2005 target, 60% said they are not confident and 17% said they are certain not to meet the target.

The benefits of e-health were seen as faster delivery of services (45%), followed by improved service delivery (21%). Electronic health delivery was not associated with cost savings - mentioned by only 8%.

About a quarter of respondents (26%) said the main disadvantage of electronic service delivery is a less personalised approach to patients, others cited security and confidentiality (19%) and increased expense (14%).

Police and judiciary

Working in partnership with other agencies is the most prominent issue faced by the police and judiciary, with funding, inevitably, close behind. However, funding was of less concern for the police and judiciary than it was for education or health professionals.

This sector is reasonably confident of meeting the e-service delivery targets. Just over half of those surveyed said they were fairly confident of meeting the 2005 deadline. The benefits of e-delivery were seen as speed (73%), improved services (43%) and value for money (39%).

Confidentiality and security were the greatest concerns for the criminal justice sector (35%) followed by exclusion of those without PC skills (33%).

Central government

The managers of Whitehall were the most confident of hitting government targets - 77% said they were fairly confident of success. However, only 16% said their organisation is certain to meet the 2005 target.

The benefits of e-delivery were seen as speed (64%), improved services (57%) and more accurate service delivery (45%).

Social exclusion through poor IT skills and lack of access to equipment is the major concern in Whitehall (27%) followed by exclusion of those without PC skills (33%).

What the public think

  • Almost 50% of the adult population has used the Internet at least once. However, having access to technology does not mean it will be used

  • Low level of trust and confidence in government may prove a barrier to the electronic delivery of services

  • Consumers want to "get by" not be at the "cutting edge" of technology

  • People perceive that accessing government via new media transfers the costs of the transaction to the user

  • This was last published in July 2000

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