Thought for the day:Taxpayers' cash for government's Field of Dreams

The government is piling money into putting national and local services on the Web, but doesn't seem to have thought about the...

The government is piling money into putting national and local services on the Web, but doesn't seem to have thought about the likely take-up by the public. Now is the time to stop dreaming and start planning, says Colin Beveridge.

The government is putting an awful lot of our money into its e-government initiative to provide all national and local services on the Web by 2005. Let's hope it's money well spent.

The new Web services will not actually replace any existing delivery channels. For the foreseeable future at least they will merely supplement the current processes, not supplant them. So from 2005, if we so choose, we will still be free to use the old, tried and trusted, communication channels for our transactions with government.

Which makes me wonder, what will motivate a critical mass of consumers to adopt the brave new world of e-government technology?

After all, just because we have collectively invested millions of taxpayers' money in Web-enabling everything in sight, it doesn't automatically follow that we will all gladly embrace the technology, especially if we have easy access through alternative means.

For example, if we have a problem with refuse collection or noisy neighbours, will we be more likely to reach for the keyboard and mouse to register our dissatisfaction by e-mail, or will we just pick up the nearest phone and rant at the poor soul on the other end of the line?

Don't get me wrong - I am not against the e-government investment. In fact I welcome the move. But I am a self-confessed early-adopter of technology, not a latter-day Luddite.

The government doesn't need to convince me of the benefits of new delivery channels. I am a pushover - providing the systems are intuitive, efficient, reliable and robust.

What worries me is that little government effort seems to have been invested in winning the hearts and minds of less receptive communities. We seem to be completely underestimating the effort that will be required to win over the majority of consumers to the proposed new services.

The principle of "build it and they will come" may have worked for Kevin Costner's character in the movie Field of Dreams but it's not a cast-iron proposition for e-government functions.

The fact is that far too many people still seriously distrust technology, especially when it is imposed on them and when they can't immediately see a direct benefit to themselves.

Unless the new e-government technology translates into immediate and directly visible savings for consumers, it will probably be a long, uphill struggle to build a critical mass of users and cost-justify the present level of financial commitment to the programme.

The long-term benefits of improved infrastructure may eventually outweigh the initial shortfalls in service take-up. But if we take some positive action now, we may well be able to mitigate the risk of low take-up and improve the adoption ratios.

I know from my own experiences of managing change that timely engagement and honest communication with the target audience are critical factors in overcoming the difficulties of inertia and antipathy to change.

By putting some of the 2005 money into regular, direct engagement and dialogue with the proposed user communities, we can prepare the ground not only for a successful implementation but also for a favourable reception.

The more people who can be persuaded to use the new channels, the better will be the returns on our investment.

Of course, the government may already be aware of this and have it adequately covered in their plans for 2005. However, speaking from the perspective of the man in the street, I can't see it happening yet.

What's your view?
How can the government win people to the Web? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Colin Beveridge is an interim executive who has held top-level roles in IT strategy, development services and support. His travels along the blue-chip highway have taken him to a clutch of leading corporations, including Shell, BP, ICI, DHL and Powergen.

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