The Government, local authorities and IT suppliers are investing millions trying to deliver online services to the public. But behind the hype of e-government there is little research on how people will actually use such services, writes Mike Simons.
However, this could change with a small experiment as part of the European Union-funded Gala project. The Gala project has already looked at how a range of seamless services can be delivered via personal computers and kiosks. Now it aims to find out how practical and desirable it is to take local government services into people's homes.
Three authorities in Britain - Suffolk County Council, Ipswich Borough Council and the London Borough of Lewisham - are taking part in the project, along with councils in Barcelona, Bologna, Cologne and Gotenborg. BT is also a partner in the project, supplying the necessary technical support.
Chris Mole, leader of Suffolk County Council, said, "With this experiment we are trying to find out how useful the Internet is for local government. We are interested in exploiting any form of technology which can help us provide services to everyone, whatever their circumstances or wherever they might live."
For five weeks 15 families in Suffolk and five in Lewisham have been conducting a trial of the system, which gives them access to the Web and to local government information both from their region and from Europe.
A chat room and discussion board has been set up and the families have been encouraged to form their own electronic community.
This is hardly groundbreaking stuff but, according to Antoinette Moussalli who is running the project for Lewisham, "Although this information was largely available, previously it was not always easy to find. The beauty of Gala is that you don't need to know who is providing a service to find out more about it.
"For example, if you want to catch a bus, you don't need to know which company runs which service to find out more details.
"This has important implications for councils delivering services, particularly in rural areas," she added.
The key, however, will be research commissioned from the University of Surrey, which will look at how well the volunteers coped with the equipment and how useful it was.
Tony Blair may have a vision of electronic government, but unless services are accessible and used by people who wouldn't normally consider using a computer - either because they can't afford one or because they don't know how to use it - his vision will fail.