The Government stakes its future on technology

The Government is pinning the success of its landmark £93bn cash injection into public services firmly on the successful adoption...

The Government is pinning the success of its landmark £93bn cash injection into public services firmly on the successful adoption of IT and e-commerce platforms across central and local government.

The prime minister's ambition to deliver local and central government services online by 2005 underpins much of the thinking behind the largest sustained injection of public funds in 30 years. To this end, chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown announced that huge sums of public money will be made available to develop new IT systems for government departments.

The immediate beneficiaries include local government, which will receive £511m over three years to develop online services. The Home Office will be given £1bn to integrate a case management system across the criminal justice system. And the Inland Revenue will be given "additional resources" to roll out online services, including filing payroll data electronically.

But this is only part of the picture. The success of all the Government's policies will depend heavily on its ability to use IT to share information between departments and to harness the Internet to provide services electronically. In the words of government IT supplier CSC, "IT will prove to be the opportunity or Achilles heel of this entire government strategy."

The Government's investment in IT has been welcomed by IT leaders. However, many of the experts contacted by Computer Weekly point out that if the Government is to be successful it will need to learn the lessons of previous IT failures. It is no exaggeration to say that the Government is pinning its political success over the next three years on technology.

The Inland Revenue has had more than its fair share of problems, including recent embarrassing security glitches in the Self Assessment Online programme. Chas Roy Chowdury, head of taxation at the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, said the Revenue should carry out a systematic examination of these failures before going further.

"You have to question whether they are making the best use of resources at present," he said. "There needs to be systemic reform of the way the Revenue spends money on IT systems."

The Government's injection of cash into local authorities received a similarly mixed reaction.

"This is good news," said Jim Haslem, president of the Society of Information Management. "The Government is expanding the period for funding local e-government, which is really positive, and it is increasing the level of funding for next year slightly."

Yet, like Chowdury, Haslem is concerned that throwing money at IT without taking a wider look at the way local government works will be self-defeating. What is needed is "a more thorough transformation of local government", he said.

Haslem doubts whether the extra cash alone will be enough to drive through e-services. "There is a need to be joined up at local level, but that has to be mirrored at central government level," he said.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said the Government's £1bn investment in a case management system to link the Crown Prosecution Service, crown courts, magistrates courts and the Probation Service is a positive step.

But Fletcher also urged the Government to learn from the mistakes made in the past. "It is highly desirable that we get a fully integrated IT system linking all the various departments," he said. "However, the separate systems have been beset with problems mainly because users were not consulted in the early stages and the projects were not managed by IT specialists."

There are a number of steps the Government should take to ensure these problems are not repeated, Fletcher said. "The project has to be managed by experts; the police have to be consulted; the software needs to be ergonomically tested; and disability access issues need to be taken into account," he explained.

As part of the planned improvements to the criminal justice system, the Government has proposed that victims of crime should be able to track the progress of their cases online by 2005 - a "bizarre" idea, according to Fletcher.

"There are one million crimes a year that lead to arrest, committed by around 350,000 people," he said. "To put all this data online would need hundreds of extra civilian staff. And the majority of crime victims are not even online anyway."

It would be much cheaper to provide a point of contact at each police station, suggested Fletcher. "This is all part of the Government's obsession with being an 'e-leader'," he said. "The money would be better spent elsewhere."

The chancellor's spending review at a glance

New cash for government IT
  • Local government will get £511m over three years to support the development of online services. This includes £10m a year for e-voting
  • The Home Office will get nearly £1bn over three years to develop a case management IT system across the criminal justice system. It is intended to streamline the case management process
  • The Inland Revenue will receive "additional resources" to roll out online services. The Government will encourage employers to file payroll data electronically
  • Customs and Excise will receive £200m over three years to implement electronic service delivery, including online VAT returns.
Government IT targets
  • Investments in IT will help the Foreign Office to deliver 2.5% annual efficiency savings
  • The Department of Work and Pensions will begin moves to pay benefits electronically from 2003. It will invest in 10,000 job-points to give citizens electronic access to job vacancies
  • The Government is developing a legal framework to allow online property conveyancing. The system will allow the electronic transfer of funds and will show house buyers how each part of the chain is progressing
  • The Office of National Statistics will use IT to re-engineer its statistical systems.
Skills and employment
  • The modern apprenticeship scheme is to be extended to 300,000 more people

  • The work permit system for overseas workers with key technology skills is to be expanded to 175,000 by next year.

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