How to avoid public ridicule

Public-sector bodies need to act right now to define their strategies and objectives for e-business if they are to meet the 2005...

Public-sector bodies need to act right now to define their strategies and objectives for e-business if they are to meet the 2005 deadline for online government services

The mission of the Government's e-envoy, as stated on its official Web site (, is to "lead the drive to get the UK online to ensure that the country, its citizens and its businesses derive maximum benefit from the knowledge economy".

The onus to meet this legislative objective by the parliamentary deadline of 2005 is primarily on the government organisations themselves. For many, the cost involved in upgrading their existing systems into Web-enabled solutions instils a fear not seen since the Y2K problem.

One of the five key priorities of the e-minister's UK online strategy is to create a public "gateway" to the Government by putting its services online. To make this possible a single, secure route into the Government's infrastructure must be provided via its many legacy systems and across all departments.

The e-government will eventually offer a single authentication service with high-levels of security at all times. Once a user has registered successfully using a common user ID or digital certificate, he or she will have access to services across the Government, including HM Land Registry, the Inland Revenue, HM Customs, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the local tax office. But for public sector bodies, making the UK online strategy a reality will be no easy feat.

UK plc is having to take a closer look at its e-business investments and the IT department is under pressure to prioritise, take shortcuts and even sacrifice e-business needs to cut costs and stay competitive. The impending threat of an economic slowdown is set to make it an uphill struggle for the consistently under-funded public sector to achieve a mass overhaul of its legacy systems in time to meet the 2005 deadline.

A lack of funds is not the only hurdle facing the public sector. There is also the issue of whether it is actually able to handle the technical or management side to execute online developments such as this. In the past, the public sector has suffered at the hands of the press for the way it has squandered public money on botched IT projects, such as automating social security payments.

The apparent lack of IT skills and expertise does not instil confidence in the public sector's ability to successfully implement the e-government project.

In January, social security secretary Alistair Darling let the cat out of the bag about the state of the systems still in use by the Government when he was quoted in the Times as saying, "I am not the world's expert on IT but even I know that green writing on black screens is somewhat out of date."

Darling was referring to the host mainframe systems, commonly known as "green screens", which are the mainstay of public sector computing. Although mainframes are trusted, reliable, resilient and cost-effective, these centrally managed banks of information can be complicated and costly to upgrade into Web-enabled solutions.

Even with the not-inconsiderable funds at the disposal of private conglomerates, the road to e-business is not always smooth.

Public-sector bodies need to take a long, hard look at their IT infrastructure now to define their strategies and objectives for e-business. With a deadline of 2005, many complicated initiatives are already out of the reach of some organisations.

There needs to be more awareness of the options available. Methods for re-writing, upgrading and modernising software need to be brought to the fore of public-sector consciousness while there is still time for the bodies to make effective decisions.

Having said that, it is not impossible for government organisations to achieve e-business success.

HM Land Registry went some way to achieving the directive when it launched Land Registry Direct. It has adopted a system to provide users with a full electronic conveyancing service with online access, in a secure extranet environment, to more than 17 million computerised registers and title plans. Information is accessible via a flexible graphical user interface and responses to title enquiries or registrations now take minutes rather than weeks.

The concept behind the e-envoy's online initiative is valid and could set the UK apart as a global leader in building a robust infrastructure for transacting with Government. However, the public sector will need to show enthusiasm and organisation if it is to reach the 2005 objective.

Organisations that feel as if they are looking into a black hole need to realise the requirements of the marketplace and use the investment they have already made to take the first steps towards e-business success, and begin doing this now.

Keith McCormick is regional sales manager at e-commerce software supplier Jacada

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