Government IT projects put the consumer last

Government IT projects are notoriously prone to failure - over budget, delivered late, don't work, systems integration nightmares...

Government IT projects are notoriously prone to failure - over budget, delivered late, don't work, systems integration nightmares - but when it comes to making real the target of electronically enabling all government services by 2005, project management issues are not the most pressing problems.

The Government has jumped on the interactive bandwagon with enthusiasm, but have government agencies fully understood the driving forces of the new economy?

The answer, simply, is no.

Although a great deal of aspirational nonsense has been written about the "new" economy, one thing is certain - the most successful sites are those which are built to deliver to customers needs and expectations. Successful sites are not necessarily flash, innovative or radically different from their offline counterparts. They simply deliver what customers want.

Compare, for example, www.Blackstar.co.uk and www.ToysRUs.com. Blackstar's idea is simple and un-revolutionary (selling videos and DVDs online). Its site is not full of bangs and whistles. But it is simple to use, and the offline customer service is exceptional. On the other hand, Toys R Us.com failed miserably, losing a small fortune and damaging its parent company. It failed largely because Toys R Us failed to understand customer needs and expectations, and simply transferred online what seemed to work offline.

While these are commercial examples, the challenges to government are fundamentally the same.

The opportunities for government online are huge: restructuring organisations; refocusing public servants from administration to service delivery; delivering public services in ways that make sense to users, across agency boundaries; and creating systems which lower administration costs.

The problem is that civil servants tend to play it safe. They take existing services and experiment with online delivery and access, seeing technology as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. In essence, they take the Toys R Us approach. The result is that government sites invariably put customers' needs and expectations last.

But politicians, particularly ministers of the current Government, can be very good at understanding and responding to customer needs and expectations. Focus groups, opinion polls and elections all help to focus minds on the needs of voters/users.

The modernisers are keen to put e-government firmly on the political agenda. But to be successful, our leaders will need to restructure the whole of government service delivery to meet customer needs and thus seize the opportunities the new economy presents.

Chris O'Leary is an e-government strategist at Agency.Com

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