The e-government we deserve?

The Public Accounts Committee is not happy with the Government's progress in delivering more of its services via the Web. David...

The Public Accounts Committee is not happy with the Government's progress in delivering more of its services via the Web. David Bicknell reports

In its report, "Government on the Web", the Public Accounts Committee levels the complaint that government departments seem to be falling behind on targets set by the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit last Autumn.

Nearly nine months later, the Government appears to be putting more effort into preparing excuses than making real progress.

One example of Government chicanery the Committee highlighted was the fact that that when a citizen phones a department, it is counted as an electronic transaction. In this way it contributes to Government targets for 50% of transactions being carried out electronically by 2005, and 100% by 2008.

The Cabinet Office's explanation is that these calls are not just ordinary calls, but those where Web technology is used to provide a response to a citizen. It is a subtle distinction, but the Committee was unconvinced. "Including telephone calls carries the risk that achievement of the government's targets may be overstated", it reported.

Similarly, the Committee is concerned that progress in the establishment of intranets to improve communications within and between departments has been limited, with a consequent failure to improve efficiency savings. According to the Cabinet Office, the reason is down to having to change the culture of departments so that electronic communications become the norm in the way they do business.

The Cabinet Office has another answer to Committee complaints that there is not yet an "established or robust methodology for justifying the expenditure which departments and agencies invest in Web-based technologies." It says it has commissioned a study to determine what such a methodology should be.

Perhaps the strongest criticism of the Cabinet Office is the Committee's suggestion that although it has the lead responsibility for promoting government on the Web, it did not know how many departments and agencies have a Web site and whether they met good practice guidance, such as being easily accessible by members of the public.

As for IT skills, the Committee suggested that if more public services are to be delivered electronically, civil servants need to be more proficient in using Web-based technologies.

It added, "staff with experience in communicating via the Web areÉ still relatively rare in central government". It called for more training in IT and Internet skills at all levels of the civil service.

With the ongoing debate over the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill continuing to overshadow government e-commerce efforts, the Committee's criticism of government Web efforts will step up the pressure on the Government to do less justifying its non-delivery, and make more progress.

It is not just the Cabinet Office which is under fire. The Department of Social Security also comes in for criticism for having made "slow progress" in providing services online, and is regarded as being still between two to five years away from being able to offer a universal service to citizens so that they could submit all their benefit forms online. The Committee found that DSS IT systems were one or two generations older than is required for Internet purposes.

Overall, the Committee's report suggests that the Government has a long way to go if it is going to meet its targets, which in themselves are deliberately under-ambitious.

Under fire - The PAC's criticisms

  • Are telephone calls really "electronic transactions"?

  • Why has Intranet development fallen off?

  • Why is there no methodology to justify expenditure on Web technologies?

  • Does the Cabinet Office know how many government departments have Web sites?

  • Department of Social Security IT systems are too old for the Web

  • Read more on IT legislation and regulation