e-Governance: one country’s strategy

How the British government aims to put the citizen online

The volume of e-commerce expenditure in the United Kingdom grew by 350% in the last year. Clearly, despite current tales of woe on the back of the NASDAQ’s slide, this is not just a dot com fad, but a revolution bringing with it fundamental changes. Businesses, individuals and government alike are all affected by it.

In September 2000 the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched UK online, a drive to make this country one of the world’s leading knowledge economies and ensuring that everyone in the UK who wants it will have access to the Internet.

The UK government knows what it wants. Indeed, my role as Director of e-Communications in the Office of the e-Envoy, part of the Cabinet Office, reflects this determination very well. In short, we are leading the drive to make the United Kingdom one of the world’s leading knowledge economies. And governments do have a crucial role to play. By this I don’t mean any old fashioned notions of state intervention, but a role complementing that of the market and responding to the expectations of our consumers – our citizens.

The key words are access, skills, and the confidence to use the Internet. We estimate that the market will provide some 60-70% of the population with home Internet access by 2003. This leaves a significant minority who could be left out of the Internet revolution. This digital divide could exacerbate problems of social exclusion. That is why we aim to achieve universal Internet access by 2005.

To this end we have launched initiatives to promote access at home, at work and in the community. We are establishing a network of almost 6,000 UK online centres which will allow people to access the Internet and familiarise themselves with basic ICT.

Governments must also provide the right market framework to allow e-commerce to thrive. For us this means taking a new look at our regulatory and legislative framework to remove all barriers to e-commerce. We have pledged to make the United Kingdom the best place in the world to trade electronically by 2002.

We are also targeting support at businesses to help the United Kingdom develop a vibrant, competitive business community using e-commerce to its fullest potential. The Department of Trade and Industry’s UK online for business campaign will be deepening the support and advice offered to small business. This £25 million campaign will focus on ensuring that the benefits of e-commerce are understood by all firms.

The development of the Internet has led consumers to demand a lot more of service providers. In an age where someone can carry out banking transactions online 24 hours a day, people are a lot less willing to put up with bureaucratic delays from government.

Our goal is to have all government services accessible online by 2005 at the latest. We have already made some good progress on this. In fact, some 33% of government services are already online. You can access health advice, submit your income tax self-assessment, and access Foreign Office advice for travelling abroad. By 2002, some 70% of services will be online, including VAT registration and the direct booking of hospital appointments by general medical practitioners. And by 2005 all services will be online, including claiming benefits, applying for a passport and accessing patient health records. We aim to achieve this target as quickly as we can, but some areas require substantial investment before going online.

We are also working to ensure that government services evolve into a form which is much more citizen-driven. A good analogy to illustrate this point is an anteater contemplating its next meal. The anteater does not see hundreds and thousands of individual ants when it approaches an anthill. Instead it sees a mass of ants, waiting to be hoovered up.

Right now, the public tends to view the government in the same way. They don’t see the individual departments providing services. Instead they see one mass which they call “Government”. We must recognise this and respond by presenting services to the public in ways which are meaningful to them. In other words, those closest to the web site’s target audience should decide the content.

At present our services are organised and delivered in Departmental Silos. This means that for a life event people have to deal with a number of agencies separately.

For example, if someone loses their job, they have to deal separately with the employment agency, the social security department, the Inland Revenue, and probably their local authority.

This kind of bureaucracy is increasingly unacceptable. People shouldn’t have to know who does what. The work we are engaged in right now is joining up public services. The new UK online Citizen Portal at www.ukonline.gov.uk will be organised around specific life events such as moving house. This will mean that people will provide us with the information once and it will then be passed on to the relevant agencies.

In fact, the point of access for the citizen need not necessarily be a government portal or website. Certainly, we will enable people who want to access government services directly to do so. But for many activities what people really want is a mixture of private and public sector services and the government gateway will allow this.

If someone is moving home, they may want access to government or local authority databases on land titles and planning restrictions, but they need to deal with private sector real estate agents and lawyers. We plan to license access to the government gateway so that private sector firms can offer the mix of services that people want. These changes are for now, but the Internet has evolved rapidly in the last few years. We must be ready to think strategically about where we want to be in the future. New technologies will continue to develop at a rapid pace. We must be ready and willing to respond to them.

©OECD Observer No 224, January 2001

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