E-government must warm up to conquer public apathy

The UK is the second best place in the world for e-commerce, according to a major international report launched at the...

The UK is the second best place in the world for e-commerce, according to a major international report launched at the government's e-summit in Whitehall today (19 November). All that needs to happen now is for the public to start using them, writes James Rogers.

According to a major international report from management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, the UK is second only to the US in e-commerce.

The report also revealed that the UK rates highly at making government services available electronically but warns that too few people are using the services on offer.

The research assesses the performance of nine countries: the UK, US, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan and Canada. It covers four areas: government e-maturity, citizen e-maturity, business e-maturity and e-environment (e-commerce).

The Office for National Statistics and policy makers from the nine countries participating in this week's E-Summit in London all took part in the study.

With £1bn of funding earmarked to boost central government's online presence between 2001 and 2004 the UK has a lot riding on the successful delivery of online public services.

The benchmarking study does, however, show that demand for these services has yet to match supply.

Earlier this year, the Commons Public Accounts Committee warned that there is a significant danger that even if the government meets its target of offering all services online by 2005, people will stick to established methods of dealing with the public sector.

Departments such as the Inland Revenue, which is seen as the standard bearer in the drive to develop public services that can be accessed electronically, are already coming under close scrutiny.

In February, the National Audit Office reported a disappointing take-up of the Inland Revenue's online self-assessment service, although the department claimed that user numbers are growing.

According to the Inland Revenue, about 240,000 of the four million tax returns received by 30 September this year were completed online. This is a threefold increase on the same period last year.

E-government and e-commerce are both intrinsically linked. Dealing with central and local government online, for example, has a knock-on effect on the broader impact of UK e-commerce. For many members of the public, paying their council tax online could be just the first step to using a wider range of e-commerce services.

Martin Greenwood, Insight programme manager at the Society of IT Management (Socitm) has urged the government to do more to promote the take-up of electronic services and help boost e-commerce. "Maybe the government could think more about giving people incentives to do things electronically, such as making things cheaper," he said.

James Roper, chief executive of industry body the Interactive Media in Retail Group (IMRG), said that this could mean cheaper council tax bills for people paying online. "People could get the same benefits of paying council tax online, for example, as they get when they pay bills by direct debit - both a discount and a deferred payment."

Companies such as low-cost airline EasyJet have already offered discounted online transactions, according to Roper. "If you want people to do something, you have to give them a benefit, it has to be easier and cheaper," he said.

Greenwood said, however, that people needed to acquire new habits in their dealings with the government to make e-government a success. He also believed that effort should be focused on ensuring that people turn to government Web sites as natural sources of information.

"You have got to make government and local authority Web sites places that you would want to go," he said, citing the foot-and-mouth crisis as a good example of how central government - and some local authorities - provided information that people wanted, but on a local level.

Despite the lack of take-up of online services identified by the benchmarking report, the UK remains one of the world's e-leaders. The study listed the low cost of Internet access for both narrowband and broadband as positives.

It also found that the UK is one of the few countries surveyed that has established a separate office to drive its e-agenda, in the shape of the Office of the e-Envoy.

Earlier this year, a worldwide e-government report from consultancy firm Accenture ranked the UK sixth out of 23 countries surveyed. The study praised the UK's "strong leadership structure" for delivering government services online, but Accenture's UK e-government partner Steve Dempsey also highlighted the fact that services could be better tailored to meet people's individual needs.

According to Dempsey, creating a "warm" online interaction for members of the public is key. "When you go online, e-government services could recognise you and report the last time that you logged on," he explained. Experiencing a "warmer" interaction with government would make individuals more inclined to use the services again.

Roper believed creating a "warmer" online experience for the public should not be too difficult a task for the government. He said, "It shouldn't be a difficult technical task - the government should be able to hold information on individuals securely."

In the meantime, the government is facing a challenge to entice members of the public to use its electronic services. But the good news is that overall, e-commerce in the UK is growing at a rapid rate. Research from the IMRG suggests that 14.3 million shoppers in the UK have shopped online this year. The industry body also tracked £860.5m of online sales in October, a ninefold increase since April 2000.

For his part, e-envoy Andrew Pinder has already said that he is "dead chuffed" with the UK's position in the worldwide e-commerce table, although he acknowledges that the government must increase take-up of its services. "We are on track for 2005, but the point is getting those services used," he added.

The UK may already be one of the world's most fertile e-commerce environments, but it remains to be seen what lessons we can learn from our fellow e-leaders when it comes to boosting the take-up of e-government services.

Why the UK is the second-best place in the world for e-commerce
  • Investment in ICT skills. Between 1998 and 2004, the government has made £1.8bn available to increase access to ICT for pupils in schools.

  • The promotion of competition to bring down Internet access costs

  • The modernisation of the regulatory environment to support e-commerce

  • Government working with industry to improve the UK's telecommunications infrastructure.

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