I am in no way fit enough to run a marathon any time soon. After 4, nearly 5 months, without taking a step any brisker than a slow stroll, my running days are well behind me. But, game as ever, after receiving an email from the Flora Folks who run London's big race, I thought I'd enter. This year, for the first time, they're doing a pilot with that brand new thingy, the Interweb. They have a whole website where you can register for entry and maybe even get a place. Beats filling out paper they say. They may be on to something, possibly a whole new means of interacting not just with runners but with all sorts of people. They may even venture into selling merchandise online one day.
The thing is, they're limiting the number of online entries allowed to 10,000. And, of those, only 2,000 will actually get a place. Contrast this with 90,000 entries last year via the paper process and only 30,000 odd actual runners. The odds of a place appear, on face value at least, to be 1 in 3 by paper and 1 in 5 by web. What kind of an incentive is that? Imagine, if we ever got online voting sorted, but your online vote counted less than your paper vote? Actually, given the state of online voting in the USA, it's just possible that's already the case, so maybe I should suspend that analogy.
I went ahead anyway. It's possible that the 1 in 3 ratio is corrupted by the number of people that get charity places so maybe it's really 1 in 4. I have no expectations of getting a place - and, actually, not much expectation of being fit. But if I were to magically get a place, the incentive to get fit would be sure to follow. Powerful things these incentives.
On an e-government front, incentives may have had their moment. In 2000 we had �10 for sending in your Self Assessment. In recent years there have also been pretty substantial incentives for sending other tax returns (for small businesses, PAYE and so on) - and, as far as I can tell looking at the take-up figures, these have paid of. Certainly, volumes are up quite substantially - some of that will be because of maturity of offering, some will be because small businesses are increasingly online, some will be because more and more commercial packages support sending returns online by default; but it's all wrapped up in the idea of cash back which can't hurt at all. Once you're online and sending some things to the tax man, it's a much smaller step to send other things, decreasing the need for incentives. Five million monthly visitors to direct.gov can't be wrong ;)
On the other hand, we have the payment disincentive. Pay by credit card (to renew your tax disc) and it will cost you more money - �2.50 more to be exact. Pay for your television licence online and whether you pay by direct debit, by debit card or by credit card, the cost is the same �135.50. Plainly, having 20 million TV licence transactions allows you to save more money than having, umm, 38 million tax disc transactions.
By the by, there's an odd error on the TV licence site - if you enter your renewal date as 1/9/2007, the validation of the date fails (and it says "Please check that your licence valid until date is correct"), and you have to edit it and put in 01/09/2007 (ok so it does say the format is dd/mm/yyyy, but still!).
I wondered, as I thought about the absence of those incentives, whether we might have reached the point of critical mass in e-government. In mid-2002 I put this slide up at a conference (and internal government one hosted by the DWP).
Do we have enough "useful services" now that the default place for most people to engage with government is online?
After all, in 2002 there were barely two dozen government services online. Now, there are, how many? Hundreds?