The government is falling down in its online services strategy by failing to understand how citizens use web services, whether they are effective, and if they represent value for money.
These are the findings of a report issued yesterday by the Committee of Public Accounts entitled Government on the Internet: Progress in delivering information and services online.
"The internet is transforming the way in which government communicates with and provides services to citizens. But the government's enthusiastic embrace of this new world of web-delivered services is not matched by a commensurate level of understanding of what it is achieving through its web sites, how effective they are or whether they represent value for money," said Edward Leigh, MP, the committee's chairman.
The aim of the study was to establish the government's progress in managing and overseeing its website estate, to evaluate the overall quality of government websites, and to appraise the government's strategy to rationalise websites from thousands to just two.
Part of the problem is that more than 25% of government organisations have no idea how much their websites cost to run, and a worrying 40% plus could only provide estimates.
After 10 years of unco-ordinated website proliferation, the government no longer knows exactly how many websites it operates. The figure could be as high as 2,500 and the government could be spending about £208m a year on online services, the report estimates.
"The time has long passed for getting a firm grip on the growth of government websites, which has been almost uncontrolled. The streamlining of web services around the key websites, Direct.gov.uk and businesslink.gov.uk, is a very welcome development," Leigh said.
The move will involve rationalising "almost 1,000 unnecessary sites" down to two by 2011. But to prevent government websites proliferating in the future, the report recommends requiring government bodies to obtain the express permission of the government's Chief Information Office (CIO) in the Cabinet Office before they create new websites.
A further major flaw is that 16% of public bodies have absolutely no data on how citizens use online service provision. Even if they have actively collected such information, it is "not always being used to inform and improve" online services.
Although socially excluded people and those on low incomes "are often major users of public services", a huge 75% and 51% respectively have no access to or do not use online information or services.
To make matters worse, one third of government web sites fail to comply with the government's own user accessibility standards, making it difficult for people with disabilities to use them.
- Ensure all government websites meet acceptable accessibility standards by 2011.
- The government's CIO Council should set quality standards for all government websites, including feedback mechanisms for the public.
- The CIO Council should require all government bodies to develop properly costed channel strategies by the end of the next financial year, for update every three years.