Delivery pains await Labour

Tony Blair wants all government services online by 2005. But public sector IT staff are sceptical. Mike Simons outlines the...

Tony Blair wants all government services online by 2005. But public sector IT staff are sceptical. Mike Simons outlines the problems ahead

The Government has earmarked a massive £1bn over the next three years to bring all its services online in an accessible, convenient and secure way.

The plans include a single Web portal based on life events, such as "having a baby" rather than individual public institutions such as social services, GPs and registry offices.

And the key milestone is 2005. By then, Tony Blair wants all government services online, and Internet access to all who want it.

Officials knew there was little point, given the disaster-prone past of government IT projects, in deploying the spin machine. But that did not stop them trying.

The Prime Minister proudly announced that 33% of government services are now available online.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these offer information only. They are not transactional. The hard work has just begun.

A key part of getting government services online, we are told is to "join up the back-office systems". No IT professional would argue with that. The real question is: how it will be done?

The Cabinet Office tells us that the "government gateway" will be crucial. According to the annual report, this gateway is "in the early stages of development to join up existing IT systems in departments to a single point of access".

"The gateway will make it much easier and more efficient for citizens and businesses to use online public services and will provide universal security and authentication standards for online government transactions," it says.

The report failed to mention that the launch of this gateway has been delayed, nor did it point out that a portal to offer a single point of entry differs from joining up back-office systems.

The e-business world is full of tales of flashy front ends masking creaking, barely connected back- office systems, and it will be a hard, expensive battle to prevent the government portal being the same.

The Government is putting the building blocks of this process in place by insisting on interoperability standards based on XML, but those standards will not become mandatory until next month.

Even when the relevant ministers have signed them off, the standards have to be applied, and that will not be straightforward. The NHS Information Authority's preference for Edifact rather than XML standards for messaging (Computer Weekly 7 September) could be just one of many disputes that need to be settled.

There is a similar ambiguity around government e-commerce. The document's "strategic goals" include getting 90% of low-value goods and services purchased electronically by March 2001, and ensuring 100% of procurement by civil central government is tendered electronically by 2002.

Last year the government set itself extremely ambitious targets for e-procurement and has been retreating ever since.

The Modernising Government white paper last year said 90% of government procurement should be electronic by March 2001. Now the target has changed to 90% of "low value" procurement.

Meanwhile, some departments lack the right systems to carry out online procurement, while some are not even on the Government Secure Internet.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which was launched in April, has got off to a stuttering start. It was charged with saving £1bn from Whitehall's procurement bill, largely through e-commerce.

But the OGC has already frozen its initial plans to create a Government electronic shopping mall and is scrapping the G-Cat pre-tendered procurement catalogue.

Meanwhile it will launch pilot projects for electronic tendering systems in the autumn and is studying existing e-procurement systems across government. Some innovative projects are under way, and few would criticise the OGC for seeking to evaluate them, but the process will make Blair's targets tight, if not impossible.

John Blundell, chief accountant at the Local Government Association, said he backed the e-government scheme - although he admitted it might not all be in place by 2005.

"It's unlikely to be possible in all cases in that time scale," he said, adding that if the Government came up with the right conditions and funding, "a good crack" at the target would be possible.

He pointed out that local government has earmarked £350m over the next three years - but with only £25m in 2001 and 2002 so there would not be much money for the project's early stages.

Following the launch of UK Online last week, Dominic Fagan from the Central IT Unit in the Cabinet Office briefed 100 public sector IT managers last week. Many thought the e-government strategy had serious flaws.

Socitm press officer and past president John Serle, who was chairing the meeting, summed up the general response: "I thought it was meant to be about policy to implementation, but it seems to be more about hype than reality."

He said structuring the user interface for a government portal around "life events" was problematic, given the involvement of private sector services in most such events. "If somebody dies you need an undertaker, and if you're moving house you need to get a solicitor and estate agent."

Delegates to the meeting asked why putting a layer of technology over troubled government deparments would make them work any better. Serle said that if the UK Online idea was meant to paper over the cracks in the way the government worked, then it was not likely to succeed.

Peter Sommer, research fellow at the London School of Economics, said, "I don't think the e-government targets are realistic. Look at the Public Accounts Committee report on Whitehall IT disasters: why do you think the Internet will be free from all these troubles just because Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney is saying 'we've learned the lessons'?"

Additional reporting by Robert Dunt

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