Thought for the day: Delusions of e-government

There is a gaping chasm between e-government concept and delivery, says Simon Moores. And do most of those who use public...

There is a gaping chasm between e-government concept and delivery, says Simon Moores. And do most of those who use public services even want it?

I was adding-up the value of public sector jobs in the newspaper this weekend but ran out of zeros before I could finish, maths never being my strong point.

Its remarkable how many "strategy" jobs are being offered from Whitehall to the Hebrides? Many of these posts are directly related to the technology sector, with enormous salaries to match, but I couldn't help feeling that the person being sought in several of the job specifications couldn't really exist in "true life", my eight-year-old's favourite expression.

In many cases, the vacancies are related to the health sector and suggest that the arrival of some El Cid-like character will resolve the services crisis being experienced by each and every local authority.

In the absence of Charlton Heston, technology may hold some of the answers, such as a single email system across the NHS. And a universal patient reference system - across all authorities, hospitals, surgeries and departments - might, I'm told, be a good step towards ensuring that a routine cartilage operation doesn't become an amputation by mistake.

At local level 30 % of council services are now e-enabled but very few if any authorities currently have the ability to encrypt data or authenticate citizens in order to handle sensitive or personal data electronically, which all rather gets in the way of the concept of "joined-up" government, with only two years left of the programme left to run.

This week, I'm "thinking about technology" at a public sector seminar in Birmingham, sponsored by information management specialists KVS, but I can't help wondering whether, in the drive to improve the quality of public sector services, that spending on potential technology solutions at central and local level is out of control. 

As one nameless senior civil servant commented: "Combining two crap services doesn't make one good one."

Take the Libra project, which aimed to provide a much needed link between magistrates' courts. This has been attacked by the House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee as a "shocking waste of money" after the cost of the project ran 200% over budget in two year. Naturally, it still doesn't work.

We're obsessed with the expensive "webification" of the public sector but research shows that people would much rather contact local government by phone.

At central government level, the financial and service argument in favour of making departments, such as the Passport Office and DVLA, more efficient by putting them on-line, can't be challenged but there's a visible chasm between the strategy and the delivery in just about every case I can think of. It's a case of driving a streamlined square peg of silicon through the stubborn hole of the public sector mechanism.

People who use government services mostly don't own laptops and when they do touch government electronically, there's very little confidence that government, as in the case of the Inland Revenue, can get their own sums right. 

In between concept and delivery, the various manifestations of the e-government agenda are in danger of becoming the British equivalent of Saddam's people's palaces. Lots of them, expensive, empty and a monument to vanity over common sense.

Prescott's Palaces. It has a nice ring to it. Don't you think?

What's your view?

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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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