E-gov standards body must deliver

Plans to develop the UK's first standards body for e-government could not be better timed.

Plans to develop the UK's first standards body for e-government could not be better timed.

Local and central government are under mounting pressure to meet the 2005 target for delivering services online. Add recent government IT project fiascos to the equation, such as the fraudulent Individual Learning Account programme, and the need for online quality assurance is obvious.

The proposed e-standards body will span both central government and local government. Backed by the Office of the E-Envoy and public sector IT managers group Socitm, it will forge standards in areas such as XML, which is emerging as the language of choice for exchanging data over the Web. The organisation will also attempt to spread good practice for delivering and supporting online services.

Advocates of the e-standards body claim it could help improve security for public services delivered online and make the task of choosing software packages easier for IT managers. The project's cheerleaders also claim that it would be the first standards body of its kind anywhere in the world.

Discussions are already at an advanced stage, with the organisation looking to secure government funding.

Computer Weekly gives the plans a cautious welcome.

The standards body is great in theory. It builds on various IT standards, such as the Government's Gateway project, which allows legacy systems in different departments to talk to each other and offers information about services to the public via the Internet.

However, it is worth pointing out that the IT industry has a poor track record in developing industry-wide standards.

Take the Government-sponsored security standard BS7799. Well respected and thorough, the standard has nevertheless been widely ignored.

A survey conducted last year found that only one in three IT directors were aware of BS7799 and just one in 10 was actually accredited with the standard. Users of the service have criticised the accreditation process for being both costly and time-consuming.

If the proposed e-standards body is to avoid the same fate it needs to get a few things straight from the start.

First, it will need to maintain a broad coalition of support, ranging from government ministers to council IT managers and software suppliers.

Second, it will need a clear remit and adequate funding. Otherwise it will be dismissed as just another government talking shop.

But most of all it will need to be open and transparent about its work. If it is not, it could be seen as being in the pocket of suppliers or attempting to bulldoze IT managers into using certain standards.

It would be a shame for everyone if this e-standards body does not deliver.

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