It is time to look at what we mean by electronic government and for a longer, harder examination of success or failure than that offered by simplistic targets.
We need to differentiate between IT systems and their public faces. Much of the work that has been carried out to meet the electronic government targets has been on the public interfaces while the systems themselves have been left largely unchanged. Many websites describe only the service offered and give contact details. A few allow for more complex interaction, such as the Inland Revenue's online self assessment system. There are even fewer services that have been designed with electronic delivery in mind. Health information service NHS Direct is a good example of where this has happened because it was commissioned in the age of the internet and telephone call centre so had no "legacy system" issues to resolve.
If we are to derive real benefits from applying technology to public services then the approach must be one of fundamental system redesign rather than tinkering at the edges. These should not be seen as IT projects but rather as business change programmes. Where there are mature existing systems with associated vested interests in the status quo then this is an immensely challenging task to undertake.
The biggest government IT programme at present is in the NHS. A key aspect of this programme, and the first to be implemented is Choose and Book, designed to allow GPs to use the internet to book hospital appointments on behalf of patients. The technology to manage an online diary is mature and so presents few challenges at a purely technical level. However, there are massive managerial implications in any shift from hospital doctors effectively controlling their own diaries to allowing GPs and patients to make bookings directly. It also affects GPs' working practices.
The challenge for the NHS is not just to deliver the technology that allows a booking to be made but to persuade all the relevant parties to sign up to the business change that may result from this. While there is every prospect that workable technical solutions will be delivered within the required timescale, there is far less certainty that the NHS community is ready to adopt these. We have already seen rumblings of discontent from important players within the health service who do not feel they have been properly involved in the process.
This experience will be repeated in many parts of government where there are attempts to change existing practices. We should judge the government's performance on the basis of its performance in these areas and not be distracted by self-congratulation on the basis of targets that only require an online interface to be offered to an existing system.
Success or failure in making these changes will increasingly determine government's ability to deliver cost-effective services in areas such as health, education and law enforcement. We know these are the issues that most people consider when deciding their votes at election time. We can therefore say that the political fate of a government is likely to be determined in future by its performance in enacting business change through technology.
This takes us a long way from this being a matter of simply ticking boxes to meet yet another government target. It will not be enough for ministers to proclaim that their departments and agencies have met their targets if there is not also real change in the experience of citizens of their public services.
Malcolm Bruce is Liberal Democrat shadow DTI secretary