Government watchdog warns of threat to e-services

Tony Blair's e-government efforts could be a waste of money unless Whitehall departments improve sharply, the National Audit...

Tony Blair's e-government efforts could be a waste of money unless Whitehall departments improve sharply, the National Audit Office warned today (Thursday).

Government departments must develop better project management skills, produce better business cases for IT spending and better measure the benefits of achieved by IT projects, the public spending watchdog said in a new report , Better Public Services Through E-government.

The NAO also called for the E-envoy's office to be more closely involved in working with government departments to push best practice across government and also to devise strategies to encourage public uptake of online services.

The recommendations outlined in the report Better Public Services Through E-government mirror the angry warning by E-envoy Andrew Pinder at the Confederation of British Industry conference last November.

Then he told UK business leaders: "We could get all services online very crudely, just enough to satisfy our targets, but if no one uses them we will have [frittered away] a huge amount of taxpayers' money."

The NAO report reveals that just over half the 524 services routinely provided by central government are "online", but most only provide information. Only seven services, just 3%, are truly interactive, providing grants or benefits on line, while none collect payments.

The Office of Government Commerce's gateway review process, which has examined 100 major IT projects worth £10bn since its creation, is praised by the NAO.

Auditor General Sir John Bourne said: "We have found examples of innovative practice but there is much to do. The major challenge is to get services online and to encourage and enable people to use them. Otherwise the considerable potential gains in departments' efficiency will not be delivered and large amounts of public money will have been wasted."

Key recommendations for the e-envoy's department include developing a cost methodology to assess the potential to improve operational efficiency and customer benefits through IT related business change. Government departments are urged to revisit their e-government policy statements and "set realistic take-up targets".

They are also urged to actively market e-services to the public, including transferring some of the cost savings to users. The Inland Revenue is one of the few departments to attempt this, offering the public a rebate for filing their tax returns online, however, problems with the system have meant that take-up has been slow.

Further information:
National Audit Office: Better Public Services Through E-government (HC704-1) 4 April 2002

Government departments' key concerns about e-targets:

Civil Servants ability and aptitude to use IT need significant development
(19 out of 20 departments identified this as an issue)

More resources are required to support IT-enabled change programmes
(19 departments identified this as an issue)

Further technological improvements are needed to update existing IT systems
(15 out of 20 departments identified this as an issue)

More reliable assessments of costs and benefits are required
Generally departments lack baseline data against which to monitor and measure improvements in efficiency made possible by IT (14 departments identified this as an issue)

Partnerships with other organisations are needed to deliver integrated IT services
(16 departments identified this as an issue)

The risk of IT-enabled change adversely affecting existing services requires careful management
(13 departments identified this as an issue)

Source: National Audit Office

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