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From services on-line to e-services in use: UK Government faces the take-up challenge. Paper presented to The Future of e-Governance Workshop, September 10, 2002, Maxwell School, Syracuse University and Campbell Public Affairs Institute.



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At the end of May 2002 the powerful Public Accounts

Committee of the Westminster Parliament raised some tough questions about the value for money achieve-ments of the UK’s current £1 billion drive to promote e-government. Just over two years ago Prime Minister Tony Blair committed his administration to achieve 100% availability of public services on-line by 2005 at central government level. An ‘e-Envoy’ post was creat-ed to spearhead this change, reporting direct to the PM. The current e-Envoy is Andrew Pinder and his Office (called OeE) now numbers over 250 staff and spends more than £52 million a year on campaigns, central facilities and regulating central departments. The gov-ernment is also spending £350 million over the next three years to achieve the same 100% target for all the 388 local authorities across England. (Scotland and Wales have their own administrations and hence sepa-rate targets).

It all looks very determined and impressive, but MPs wanted to know whether making services e-available means anything very much in terms of e-take up - that is, how many citizens and enterprises are actually using the new services. Suppose you built an e-government, and nobody came? The problem was raised by a National Audit Office report Government on the Web II (HC 764 Session 2001-2) which showed that many cen-tral departments had difficulty in producing statistics for usage of their Web sites. Amongst those which did have data there were both successes (growing at or above the rate of UK internet traffic generally) and laggards (showing little growth in Web usage). The Office of e-Envoy had not followed up previous demands by MPs that they generate good statistics on government sites’ usage, and they had no systematic data on the quality of central agency Web sites.

The Government on the Web II report also showed grounds for concern in the key tax-collection area, where a separate target that 50% of taxpayers should

send in forms online by 2005 has been set by the Treasury. In a detailed analysis of the Customs and Excise department the report showed that it had achieved high electronic transactions on its import and export systems (mainly using pre-internet technolo-gies). But Customs had so far failed to launch any effec-tive Web-based system for its main tax task, collecting VAT. MPs were openly sceptical that Customs had much chance of meeting the 50% electronic take-up of VAT by 2005, although the department argued that it had set basic business systems in place which would reap big dividends once a final e-form and associated new business architecture went live. An earlier NAO report on the even larger Inland Revenue tax operations showed that it had launched and re-launched its e-forms for income tax self-assessment three times, with take-up levels consistently under-performing against the department’s projections.

The Government on the Web II study did report progress in other areas. A survey of Web facilities on 400 central government agency sites found that consid-erable strides had been made since the first

Government on the Web study in December 1999 showed that only basic information in a list-format was present on most sites. By late 2001 the information was beginning to be presented in somewhat more interac-tive and tailored ways, with most forms generally down-loadable and a few being capable of being filled in and returned electronically. Credit card payments for pur-chases were just beginning and e-consultations were well developed.

For local government the report found that the average local authority presented on-line information for 27% of a list of 162 key facilities for citizens which are easily feasible at the present time - but with a huge spread. The best local authorities were achieving 40 to 50% of the researchers’ list, the worst only a few percent, while 13 (out of 388) localities still lacked even a basic Web

The Future of e-Governance Workshop

September 10, 2002

From Services On-Line to E-Services In Use: UK Government Faces The Take-Up Challenge Patrick Dunleavy Chair, LSE Public Policy Group London School of Economics

site. Nonetheless the study concludes that because local

authorities are closer to citizens, and run services which they use much more readily and frequently, they may provide a key avenue or route in for people to contact government as a whole. Yet despite strong central subsi-dies for local e-government, the local sites were still not very good at linkaging across tiers. Only half of councils linked up to the government portal at

www.ukonline.gov.uk for instance.

This key central Web site was launched in spring 2001 but so far has not been the great success achieved by its counterpart www.firstgov.gov in the USA. The ‘UKonline’ site began in a clunky format and its poor design initially put off visitors who were using it simply as a ‘finder’ mechanism for government agencies, many of whom went off to Google never to return. Now made over by a new team ‘UKonline’ has begun to add additional portal facilities, first for business and later for a range of other groups. Its partner facility, called the Government Gateway and designed to be a centralized means of agencies assuring the identities and authenticity of peo-ple sending them e-forms, continues to struggle with the intractable issues here. UK government expectations that digital certificates would take off and become the main vehicle for authentication have not been borne out. So current progress still depends heavily on agencies issu-ing PIN numbers to people who have at least mailed in a conventional signature.

The Government on the Web II report calls for a new era of e-government to begin. Instead of simply dumping existing facilities on-line British government agencies should seek to actively grow their Web traffic overall. Instead of perhaps fixating on achieving complete elec-tronic ‘transactions’ they should try to flexibly accommo-date all the key aspects which interest citizens and enter-prises, including e-research, e-consultation, e-regulation, e-grants, e-democracy and so on as well as full transac-tions or e-commerce. Above all the report argues, every agency needs to actively woo and attract e-customers and e-clients, studying in detail what they want to achieve, persuading them with real incentives that e-routes are superior. So officials need to make take-up of electronic facilities their new key mantra. Achieving a 100% availability of government services but low take-up cannot help government save money or genuinely improve the quality of services for citizens. It will be inter-esting to see in October how far the Public Accounts Committee backs this call, and what in turn the govern-ment response will be.

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of LSE Public Policy Group which carried out the Government on the Web II research and wrote the report under contract to NAO. The report

and supporting research is available for free download at www.governmentontheweb.org