But have we achieved the Prime Minister’s goal? Do we have simple, joined up, citizen focused government? Is everything online and is usage at the level that would be expected?
Simply put, no.
Despite the huge investment and even with a likely claim of close to 100% of services online (there will always be arguments over exactly how many are, how you count services that weren’t part of the target when it was set and what you do with services that are genuinely new and not available offline) it's quite clear we still have departmental-led, low usage e-government.
We have government for government, not government for the citizen.
With so many services available, you’d perhaps think that usage should be higher. Early on, the argument was often made (I believe I made it too) that it wasn’t worth going online just to do one service – the overhead was too high – and that we needed to have a full range of services on offer - ones that could be used weekly and monthly as well as annually. That way, people would get used to dealing online with government and we’d have a shot at passing the 'neighbour test' (i.e. no service will get truly high usage until people are willing to tell their neighbour they used, say, 'that new tax credits service online' and got their money in 4 days flat, encouraging their friends to do likewise).
To date, no-one, anywhere, whether friend, acquaintance, business colleague or merely passer-by has stopped me to exclaim, wonder (or even the absence of wonder) at any government service – and I meet a lot of people who know exactly what I do so it's no big leap to imagine them opening a conversation over dinner with a comment about some service they’d tried, good or bad.
With perhaps 40% of the population either shopping or banking online, there’s a viable target that within the next 18-24 months, the same number of people should be using government’s online services too. It will, however, take work:
• Rationalise massively the number of government websites. In a 2002 April Fool email sent widely around government, I announced the e-Envoy’s department had seized control of government’s domain name registry and routed all website URLs to UKonline.gov.uk and was in the process of moving all content to that same site. Many people reading the mail a few days later applauded the initiative. Something similar is needed. The only reason to have a website is if someone else isn’t already doing it. Even if someone isn’t, there’s rarely a need for a new site and a new brand for every new idea.
• Engage forcefully with the private sector. The banks, building societies, pension and insurance companies need to tie their services into those offered by government. Want a pension forecast? Why go to government – what you really want to know is how much will you need to live on when you’re 65 (67?) and how you'll put that much money away in time. Government can’t and won’t tell you that. Similarly, authentication services need to be provided that can be used across both public and private sectors – speeding the registration process in either direction. With Tesco more trusted than government, why shouldn't it work this way? The Government Gateway, with over 7 million registered users, has much to offer the private sector – and they, in turn, could accelerate the usage of hardware tokens for authentication (to rid us of the problems of phishing) and so on.
• Open up every service. The folks at my society, public whip and theyworkforyou.com have shown what can be done by a small, dedicated (in the sense of passionate) team. No-one should ever need to visit the absurdly difficult to use Hansard site when it’s much easier through the services these folks have created. Incentives for small third parties to offer services should be created – Apple’s widgets for the Mac have spawned a thriving sub-culture of people willing to put their personal time into developing (mostly) useful programmes that enhance the Mac experience; is it too hard to imagine there are people who would put similar effort into developing useful government services? If the efforts of the theyworkforyou folks are taken into account, it can’t be.
• Build services based on what people need to do. We know every year there are some 38 million tax discs issued for cars and that nearly everyone shows up at a post office with a tax disc, insurance form and MOT. For years, people in government have been talking about insurance companies issuing discs – but it still hasn’t happened. Bring together disparate services that have the same basic data requirements – tax credits and child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit etc.
• Increase the use of intermediaries. For the 45% of people who aren’t using the Internet and aren’t likely to any time soon, web-enabled services are so much hocus pocus. There needs to be a drive to take services to where people use them. Andrew Pinder, the former e-Envoy, used to talk about kiosks in pubs. He may have been speaking half in jest, but he probably wasn’t wrong. If that’s where people in a small village in Shropshire are to be found (and with Post Offices diminishing, it's probably the only place to get access to the locals), that’s where the services need to be available. Government needs to be in the wholesale market if it's to be efficient – there are far smarter, more fleet of foot retail providers that can deliver the individual transactions.
• Clean up the data. One of the reasons why government is probably afraid to join up services is that they know the data held on any given citizen is wildly out of date or just plain wrong. Joining up services would expose this. When I first took the business plan for the Government Gateway to a minister outside the Cabinet Office, this problem was quickly identified and seen as a huge impediment to progress. ID cards will never work without such a clean up (I’m sure they will never work for all sorts of other reasons as well, but if they do go ahead, someone's going to have to confront this).
In 2001, the UK clearly led in the vision stakes – and many governments from around the world came to visit or were visited so they could learn from what Britain had done.
In 2005, the vision still holds – and has been reiterated in the Transformational Government strategy with little embellishment albeit with more focus on the internal mechanics of how it might be achieved this time round.
Other countries will still want to visit and learn what's being done here – partly because visiting is what these folks do but also because there are genuine lessons to be learnt from us.
It’s as the driving instructor tells his student, 'drive as I say, not as I do'. Government departments would do well to learn the same lesson. If not, then it feels more like everyone is waiting for a Lord of the Rings 'Look to the East' moment. And, last time I looked, Gandalf was busy elsewhere.