Government services online are a real benefit

If you believed everything you read in the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that every major government IT programme is unwanted and unloved. Yet...

If you believed everything you read in the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that every major government IT programme is unwanted and unloved. Yet public services are increasingly provided with a hand from IT.

This is not so different from the IT we use in every other aspect of our lives.

Banking and shop opening hours, TV schedules and barriers to education are no longer restrictions on our activities. For many, a work/life balance can be achieved by choosing where, when and how we work. Entertainment is there at the touch of a button.

Cut the Post Office pain

I can tax my car at the push of a button instead of spending hours queuing in a post office and, in the same painless way, apply for a passport. These services make our lives easier. The freedom to access government services online is a real benefit and one we should welcome and value.

Although many transformational programmes get off to a bumpy start, there is no doubt in my mind that we are entering an era when the citizen is beginning to reap the benefit from these far-sighted investments.

UK government minister Baroness Andrews said recently, "New technologies offer us very exciting and creative solutions to tackling the social deprivation and exclusion that blights too many people's lives."

This is a reminder that IT does not just make our lives easier, in a more meaningful sense it makes it easier to live our lives better. Government IT is there to provide the citizen with faster, cheaper and - most importantly - better public services. This matters to all of us.

A European Commission report published in April said more than 250 million people in Europe regularly use the internet. Some 80% have broadband connections. It may not surprise you that 77% of Europeans use internet banking, but did you know that 60% of public services are available online?

In the health sector, for example, 57% of doctors send or receive patients' data electronically, compared with 17% in 2002.

Inclusivity

Whereas this first wave of e-government has been enabled by creating websites where citizens and governments can complete transactions, the future will be far more exciting, as mobile technology and Web 2.0 are first revolutionary then taken for granted.

Mobile technology in particular will have a role to play in bridging the digital divide as the take-up rate for mobile phones is much higher than broadband, particularly among the less well-off.

The principle challenge for government and its suppliers is to accelerate the adoption and increase the understanding of these rapidly converging technologies to create even more simple and compelling ways to extend access and choice to every citizen.

The IT that enables this transformation does not need to be loved and wanted in itself, but commentators could learn to want and love what it delivers.

● Tim Smart is president of BT global services UK

This was last published in May 2008

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