Spoiled ballot sheets could be a thing of the past if the current trend towards electronic government takes off. Deloitte & Touche has launched a report putting the UK at the head of the e-government movement, but warning that it needs to work hard to meet increasing demands from the public.
The report, At the Dawn of E-Government: The Citizen as Customer, outlines six things that any government must do to prepare itself for the provision of electronic services to the general public.
While the steps may seem superficially simple, the report identifies some major technology barriers for public sector organisations wanting to digitise their services - 32% of governments surveyed identified legacy systems as a major obstacle to development, topping skills shortages, project costs and legislative restrictions.
Significantly, however, the UK public sector had a more optimistic view than the US. Just over 40% of respondents in the UK identified technology as a positive means to achieve e-government, compared to just over half that percentage who were more pessimistic and believed existing technology would hinder development.
Chris Exeter, European research manager at Deloitte & Touche and a co-author of the report, said the Government needs to overhaul its back-end systems if it is to meet the demands of the public on the internet.
"People are used to working in a fast-moving environment," he said. "If you send an e-mail, you generally expect a response reasonably quickly - the same day at the latest. How public sector organisations respond to change is important."
Exeter also identified technology funding as a particular problem for governments. One potential solution is the development of matched funding initiatives, where the government develops partnerships with other sectors, for example. "The public sector around the world is tax-strained," he said.
Security was also identified as a big issue, said Exeter, who explained that as the Government begins making tax forms available online, this will become increasingly important.
Mike Saunders, service manager for strategic initiatives at Kirklees Metropolitan Council, has been implementing a single sign-on (SSO) system to make his set of applications more secure. He is also examining the use of smartcards as a means of identifying citizens online when accessing government services.
There have been some technology developments in the area of e-government already. The Stationery Office has been making strides towards the electronic publication of government information. In March, Parliament conducted an electronic debate with the general public for the All Party Group on Domestic Violence.
It is now planning one on leasehold reform, drawing together landlords, tenants and lawyers.
The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has also announced a £10m Wired Communities project to bring the internet to deprived communities, and has stated that everyone in Britain should have access to the internet by 2005.
This month, the first phase of the Revenue Online System (ROS) in Dublin goes live, and will enable people to pay their taxes online. Information from the Stationery Office suggests the Irish government wants more than half its taxes to be filed online within five years.
Six steps to digital government
- Information publishing/dissemination. This involves the production of websites by individual government departments to provide information to the public.
- Official two-way transactions. As government websites become more sophisticated, it should be possible to exchange information with public sector organisations, and even to conduct e-commerce transactions with them, such as paying council tax bills, for example.
- Multi-purpose portals. Realising that an individual member of the public may need to deal with different government departments at the same time, these portals would provide a one-stop-shop approach to government interaction.
- Portal personalisation. Once established, government "customers" should be able to tailor the portals to see their own particular needs, displaying the information that is most relevant to them.
- Clustering of common services. The report believes that when the portal model takes a firm hold, the perception of individual government departments will disappear and the public will view the government simply as an entity with which to engage in a series of transactions.
- Full integration and enterprise transformation. Front-end and back-end applications will be integrated even further to provide more services to the public. This is essentially the conclusion of a transition to digital government.