First launched in a blaze of publicity in February 2001, the government portal UK Online is designed to link more than 1,000 government Web sites, effectively dispensing with the red tape and bureaucracy that has traditionally characterised dealings with government. As the public face of the UK's e-government strategy, however, the site is also set to play a crucial part in Tony Blair's plan to make services available electronically by 2005.
The stakes are high for UK Online. If it fails to perform then it could put the prime minister's 2005 target in jeopardy, becoming by far the most embarrassing of recent government IT failures: if the Government is unable to deliver the country's main citizen portal effectively what hope is there for the UK's wider e-government and e-commerce agenda?
This explains why the Government has been at pains to consult users about the forthcoming redesign of the site. Over the past few months the Cabinet Office has conducted extensive research to get a clearer idea of how people deal with government, and a new version of the site is set to go live in the next few days.
The message from users appears to be that people want fast, efficient access to information right across the board. Although reticent to talk about the specific technologies behind the relaunch, Cabinet Office sources confirmed that the new-look site is designed to make it easier for users to search across government Web sites and find the information that they need.
A spokesperson said, "The new version will allow people better access to government information and better interaction with the Government via the Internet." UK Online is an integral part of getting people online and achieving the e-government goals, she added.
In addition to giving access to central government services, UK Online will also act as a link between the disparate services of local and central government. Jonathan Prew, business and corporate IS manager at Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, said, "We see UK Online as being one of the main citizen portals into the town's services."
This is an important point: if the country's e-government agenda is to proceed as planned, we are likely to see significant growth in online services over the coming years, with the UK Online portal providing a vital bridge between central and local government. Prew added, "UK Online is about the service rather than who provides it."
In the relaunched UK Online "life episodes" will be replaced with a section entitled "your life". Designed to reflect the everyday needs of the population, the nine existing life episodes cover major events such as learning to drive, moving home and retirement. Government officials have described the new "life events" as more intuitive and user-friendly than their predecessors and confirmed that plans exist to add more events.
The life episodes have already proved popular with users and serve as a model for future e-government services. Prew said, "Things like the life events give a real focus for the public and remove the need for them to be concerned about which public sector organisation provides a specific service."
UK Online is also set to undergo some cosmetic changes. As a result of user feedback, the number of images on each page has been reduced and the site designed to be easier to navigate. The new version can also be viewed in EasyAccess format, which is said to provide clearer text and fewer graphics.
A government official has described the new site as, "Putting the foundations in place so that UK Online can be built on in future." It may still be early days for the citizens' portal but its future development will be watched with interest as evidence of progress on the e-government agenda.
Although it will undoubtedly be subject to intense scrutiny, the new look UK Online has received a warm initial response from users and industry experts alike. Ian Keys, director of the think-tank New Local Government Network, said, "We feel very positive about the relaunch of UK Online. It is starting to get around the bureaucracies that have traditionally hindered open government."
- July 2001: Tameside's fully transactional Web site is voted the best council site in England by local government IT group Socitm's members
- July 2001: pensions minister Ian McCartney launches ninth "life episode", dealing with pensions and retirement
- November 2001: portal moved to interim hosting service run by not-for-profit EduServ
- January 2002: relaunch.