Pitfalls of e-government: a joined-up approach is needed

The Government has pledged £1bn to create public sector e-services, but if its eagerness to invest is not properly targeted we...

The Government has pledged £1bn to create public sector e-services, but if its eagerness to invest is not properly targeted we could see a deluge of government e-failures


John Serle

Flicking through the multiplicity of conference programmes for this autumn one might be forgiven for thinking that there is only one game in town. Whatever you are selling it must start with the letter "e".

The punters will not take you seriously if you are not up with modern thinking. It is not surprising therefore that anybody who is anybody has become an instant expert on e-business and e-government. But are we getting the best practical advice on how to deliver services electronically and just what does it takes to succeed?

We have all heard about the spectacular failures in e-commerce, so why not listen to those that have already got their fingers burned and learn from their experience.

Sadly these folk do not seem to appear on the platforms at conferences. A cynic might think that this is deliberate, to avoid the wary being frightened off by too much exposure to the risks. Or perhaps they are just too modest to want to share the knowledge.

Government has pledged £1bn of new spending to support public sector development of e-service. Interestingly it has set targets that almost compel public bodies to create electronic services, whether it is justified or not.

By 2005 all services capable of electronic delivery must be online. Work is currently underway to define the services that could and should be delivered electronically. But little is said about determining the business case for these new channels.

Were those private sector failures created from eagerness to get to market at the expense of sound business logic?

It is not yet clear how and when the money will be released to public bodies. Help is needed now, and funding must be directed at the projects, which are most likely to succeed. The problem is how these can be identified.

At the heart of the modernising agenda is the citizen. What the Government is seeking is a more joined-up approach to public services.

Actually its ambition runs further than that. It wants to be able to join both public and private sector provision to meet the citizen's need. Unfortunately, most of the agents working on the proposition are taking a service or sector perspective.

The local government body, the Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA), for example, has pledged to produce process maps for all local authority services. But where is the joined up thinking?

If process maps are needed they should represent life events with links to all public and private agents. Individual local health authorities are developing their own approaches to e-service and, in some cases, individual departments within authorities have differing strategies.

The public is going to expect a uniformity of service provision wherever they live. It doesn't make any sense to have different Web designs for the same function from one organisation to the next.

To meet the electronic service delivery targets it has been estimated that for an average size public body about 100 systems will need to be modified or replaced.

The resource implications of this are enormous. With a shortage of IT skills already in the UK, the modernising programme is set to exacerbate the situation. Pooling of resources must be the way forward.

Two of the best examples of a joined up approach to electronic service delivery at the strategic level can be seen in the Society of IT Management's (Socitm) publications Wales.gov and e-Scotland.

Cultural barriers

These set out the framework for co-operative working between local agencies, which is a prerequisite for effective electronic service delivery. A similar publication has just been commissioned for the London area.

We now need someone to draw the strands together and produce practical advice and models for electronic service implementation. This needs to bring in practical examples of what works and what doesn't.

It needs to explore the business case for the implementations, it needs to explain the investments and resources needed to achieve the required outcomes. It also needs to set out how the private and public sector can work together to deliver the most cost-effective service to the community.

A universal smartcard would help to simplify access to services. Common portals, designed to agreed standards, granting access to all services are essential, as are plentiful, distributed and free access points. Government could force the issue by only funding projects that meet these criteria.

The transformation of public service will take time. The cultural barriers are likely to prove harder to overcome than the technical ones. It is essential that the Government decide quickly on placing its investment where it will do the most good.

John Serle is an independent consultant and chairman of the Society of IT Management Best Value Group

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