Government “Online” Targets

The Government have set a crude target of 2005 for all government services to be “online”. This has had some benefit in terms of encouraging government at all levels to think about new technology, but it remains a very blunt instrument and may also lead to some bad practice. The fear is that much of the money allocated to putting services online will be spent (wasted) on putting a new technology veneer on existing government systems rather than properly re-engineering them to take full advantage of the technology.

There is also a problem in attempting to define what is meant by putting a service “online”. The Government definition to date has generally meant any form of remote access to a service including means such as telephone call centres. It also means web access where this is purely informational and the real work still has to be done using paper mail or in person.

Liberal Democrats would avoid the use of crude targets. We would focus on the quality of the work being done in enabling access to government services rather than simply looking at the quantity of services that meet a checklist of requirements.

The key measure of success lies in the actual benefits felt by citizens which will not always be obvious to those developing new systems. An example of this lack of predictability can be seen in the experience of two recent government systems. A high capacity system has been made available for the filing of personal tax returns online yet this has seen very little take-up by the public. By contrast, the Public Records Office commissioned a system to put census information online and saw such high levels of demand that it had to be taken down again.

Whilst this points to the need to improve predictions for the anticipated use of new systems there will always be a degree of uncertainty that requires additional flexibility from government.

We take the view that new technology should be used to create multiple channels for access to public services rather than being used to provide simple replacements for existing systems. There is a wide variance in the ability and willingness of people to use new technology. Public authorities need to be sensitive to this and not seek to impose ‘one size fits all’ solutions.

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