IT professionals in the public sector may be doing all they can to meet Whitehall targets for delivering electronic services, but a major cultural change is needed to make Tony Blair's e-government dream a reality, according to a National Audit Office study.
Last week the NAO published a report entitled Better Public Services Through E-Government. It highlighted the fact that central government has still got some way to go if it is to meet the 2005 target for delivering 100% of public services online.
Auditors found that just over half of the 524 services that departments routinely provide are online, but most only offer information. Moreover, just seven of the services surveyed provide grants or benefits online, and none collect revenue.
John Bourn, head of the NAO, said, "We have found examples of innovative practice but there is much to do to realise the full potential from using Internet technology and ensure a sufficient number of people use public services delivered electronically."
The report found that there are major cultural issues that need to be resolved before the UK reaches the 2005 deadline. Of 20 government departments surveyed, 19 reported that civil servants' ability to use IT needs significant development, and 15 departments said further technological improvements are needed to update existing IT systems.
Lack of adequate resources, which has so often plagued major public sector IT projects, also appears to be hindering the growth of e-government. The report revealed that 19 departments have called for more resources to support IT-enabled change programmes. Fourteen departments also said that more reliable assessments of e-government costs and benefits are required.
The Government will say it is resolving these problems with the Gateway Review process, but the NAO believes there is room for improvement in this area.
Auditors acknowledged that the Gateway Reviews are an important initiative but called on the Office of Government Commerce, which is overseeing the scheme, to continue working with departments to remedy shortcomings in IT strategies. These include the development of better project management skills and more effective measurement of the benefits achieved by IT.
Even if project management runs perfectly, success still depends on users being able to access the service. The Government has yet to address this problem.
Research found that only 7% of UK citizens in the lowest income group have Internet access, compared to 71% of those on higher incomes. For these reasons, the NAO urged the Government to promote key services which meet the needs of specific groups, such as the elderly.
Even if people have Internet access, e-government services will still need to attract their interest. "The major challenge is to get services online and to encourage and enable people to use them," said Bourn. "Otherwise the considerable potential gains in departments' efficiency will not be delivered and large amounts of public money will have been wasted."
However, it is not all doom and gloom. Auditors identified some examples of best practice, such as the Land Registry for England and Wales, which provides its land registry direct service to businesses via a secure extranet. The service offers a range of facilities to companies, such as enabling them to view computerised land registers.
The NAO report said there is a pressing need for the Government to share the experience of implementing trail-blazing IT projects. Auditors are now urging the Office of the E-Envoy to work with departments to foster best practice and encourage citizens to take up online services.
E-envoy Andrew Pinder welcomed the NAO's recommendations and has promised to work with the Government to implement them. However, if they fail, e-government could become the most costly chapter in the book of public sector IT disasters.
The National Audit Office's recommendations
For Government Departments:
- Set targets and effective strategies for the take-up of services online
- Actively market e-services to the public
- Tackle the barriers to civil servants using IT
- Adopt an approach to IT-enabled change that realises efficiency gains
For the Office of Government Commerce:
- Build on Gateway Review results to improve departments' management of IT projects
For the Office of the E-envoy:
- Accelerate the dissemination and adoption of good practice by departments on how to encourage citizens to take up services available online
- Develop a cost methodology to assess the potential to improve operational efficiency and customer benefits through IT-enabled business change and to measure its achievement