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Putting the IT into politics

A little more conviction and a little less 'compulsion' might get people interested in e-government.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Science & Tech

Electronic government promised reformed public services fit for twenty-first century consumers and citizens – but it is struggling to deliver.

The UK government’s target of getting all government services online by 2005 is widely seen as unhelpful. But e-government that is merely available but isn’t used will lose the confidence of policymakers and industry. And in Britain it isn’t used: just 11 percent of Brits have dealt with the state electronically, compared with 18 percent in France and Germany, and 40 percent in Canada.

Noah Curthoys and James Crabtree, authors of SmartGov: Expanding E-Government for Improved Service Delivery, a report published by the Work Foundation’s iSociety project in July, believe that a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform the state using new technology is in danger of stalling’ (p13).

The authors have high hopes for e-government, seeing it as ‘a philosophy for the reinvention of the state’ – a state ‘fit’, they hope, ‘for a network society’ (p5). The report makes some telling points. Without using the term ‘digital divide’, it notes that the majority of those who use government services generally come from poorer backgrounds, while the majority of intensive technology users are well-off (p6).

Local authorities, it adds, have only been given £350million for e-government. Yet even a little e-government a) holds a mirror up to general government’s warts and all; b) is prone to public mishaps, which – unlike successes – are easily remembered; and c) is unlikely to save money.

So far, so accurate. But is the report right to talk up the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) as a fine example of the right way to go about e-government?

At one level, the OGC’s efforts fit within neither the Work Foundation’s framework for e-government, nor Whitehall’s. Both define e-government simply in terms of public services to citizens (p9). Yet while the SmartGov report does not consider the government’s £30million budget for e-democracy, it believes that e-procurement – the public-sector, electronic buying of private goods and services – is part of e-government.

This is not just a blurring of definitions, but a means of endorsing government e-practice that does not deserve to be endorsed. SmartGov lavishes praise on the OGC for its one-step-at-a-time, small-scale, decentralised change – for eschewing a big-bang approach, building trust, and removing cultural barriers through pilot projects.

Of course, big bangs are fraught with risk – and SmartGov draws attention to major government IT project disasters of the past (the Passport Office, the Inland Revenue, the National Census). But when we read that the OGC’s pilot projects have ‘successfully demonstrated the value of e-procurement’ (p23), it is obvious that the Work Foundation’s preferred softly-softly approach to e-government is a mistake. A glance at Appendix D of the OGC’s A Guide to eProcurement for the Public Sector, published last autumn, shows why (1).

In the pilots, seven government departments ran seven e-procurement pilot exercises. Accenture’s software systems were tested by the National Assembly for Wales and the Police IT Organisation. Directa, by Biomni, went out to the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, the Department for Trade and Industry and two standards agencies – driving and food. Elcom’s PECOS application, implemented by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, had a trial at the Environment Agency. Over 2000 transactions, the procurement pilots involved the expenditure of £800,000 – an average transaction value of £400.

Set that against the OGC’s annual spend of £13billion, and we can see just how far the incremental approach has got us. All the pilots ended in July 2002 – a year before SmartGov was published. What has happened since?

The OGC’s website shows that, in e-procurement, it is issuing more guidance, routemaps, schemas, deliverables and assessment tools. On top of the government’s target of putting all government online by 2005 and the EU’s hope that, by the same date, ‘Member states should carry out a significant part of public procurement electronically’, we learn of a new central government target – to save a colossal £250million by March 2006. And that is about it (2).

The reason for this neglect is simple. Procurement is not about social inclusion, or what I have elsewhere termed therapy-to-victim – T2V, the essence of New Labour’s Third Way. While devices of supposed citizen empowerment, like e-voting, move ahead, the public sector remains way behind the private sector in the dull but very important discipline of Supply Chain Management (3).

But for the Work Foundation, the OGC can do little wrong. SmartGov compliments Liverpool Direct for using call centres more than the internet, and North Wales Police for ignoring the temptation for ‘costly, high-profile (and complex) IT’ (p56). In particular, the OGC is eulogised for targeting ‘specifically those organisations that were likely to use their services’. That approach is one that the Work Foundation is anxious to see adopted in the domain of services to citizens.

Its argument is attractive, but dangerous. Naively identifying the state’s relationship to citizens with the firm’s relationship to customers, SmartGov indicts the government for failing to segment off and target ‘upcoming generations’, those ‘tech-savvy citizens’ who ‘are the most immediate future for e-government’ (p34). ‘If you have internet access at home, and are computer literate, why should the state subsidise you to use a more expensive, more time-consuming paper-based tax return system?’, it asks (p36).

SmartGov wants those with internet access to be subjected to what it very properly calls ‘compulsion’. Thus, the Inland Revenue already insists that, by 2005, all big businesses will have to file their tax returns electronically. ‘But’, the report continues, ‘there is a strong case for wider use of such measures’ (p37).

This is remarkable stuff, and it has prompted controversy in the press. ‘Philosophically’, SmartGov admits, compulsion ‘often looks undemocratic’ (p36). So what is its model for compulsion?

The report mentions how, in US tax matters, the extension of self-assessment deadlines by two weeks for those filing their returns online ‘compels many late citizens to use the web as the only way to avoid both penalties and the forensic might of the IRS bearing down on them’. But this kind of compulsion is really an incentive: if you have the web, the government extends the deadline for completion as an incentive for you to use your IT facilities, not pen and ink.

No, the Work Foundation’s real model for compulsion isn’t America’s Internal Revenue Service, but one that, at the Treasury and the Department for Transport, is now upheld everywhere as an example to the nation: London’s congestion charge.

London mayor Ken Livingstone’s fiscal figleaf for a transport policy is certainly, as the report observes, ‘the most marketed [e-government] programme not to mention e-government’ (p9). But here is what SmartGov has to say about the compulsion that surrounds it:

‘Users choose to pay online or by SMS because it is quicker and easier. But there will come a point where, to save money necessary for other services, it will become wise to “migrate” certain user groups to those channels regardless. By compelling people to go online to have speedy and trusted transactions, the London government is effectively driving up e-government usage single-handedly, if only for car drivers.’ (p37)

But this is wrong, for the following reasons:

1) As anyone who has done so knows, paying the congestion charge online is a nightmare, courtesy of Capita’s appalling interface, which appears designed to deter usage.

2) It is far from certain that internet arrangements for the charge, like those for any government service, really do save money. Only in procurement can IT presently hope to make savings. As SmartGov points out, it has taken the online bookseller Amazon years to make money from even high rates of take-up. The appeal of IT cannot be reduced to a cost-cutter’s charter (4).

3) The report appears to want to migrate users over to electronic channels at a certain point, ‘regardless’ of whether those channels are quicker and easier. Yet a moment’s thought shows that, thankfully, nobody is compelled to use the internet when paying the congestion charge. Rather, Livingstone has implemented our old friend, a multi-channel strategy, aka ‘choice’.

4) By proposing compulsion – internet users must use it for dealing with government – SmartGov effectively proposes that the channel you are allowed to use for dealings with government is decided upon, by an efficiency-conscious government, as part of a means test for the new millennium. In effect, if you are found to have access to the internet but instead use the post to deal with the state, then state penalties will apply. How such a test would be applied in practice is something that SmartGov leaves to the imagination.

Often the authors of SmartGov write eloquently of what e-government could bring. ‘What the internet and network technologies offer are a chance to rebuild the insulated layers and silos of government into a more modern and effective machine’, they argue. ‘Early proselytizers for e-government suggested that… new systems – their popularity, customer focus, and organisational reach – would enable dramatic change. This has not proved to be the case. The persistence and durability of existing structures – and the way in which they prove resistant to change – caught the public sector by surprise.’ (p46)

All this is fair enough. But the authors are still more acute. ‘Out-of-date legislation and regulation will soon become another major inhibitor for e-government’, they continue. ‘In particular, legislation surrounding data protection needs rethinking. Pooling databases, citizen information and usage patterns is a necessary precondition for much of online delivery. Open access to data does not square with existing protections, and something needs to give. At the same time e-government raises new concerns about protecting data on citizens.’ (p47)

If anything, SmartGov underestimates just how much concerns about privacy are likely to prove a major barrier to e-government.

Soon Richard Granger, director general of NHS IT, will sign contracts for a dedicated, secure, broadband telecommunications infrastructure for the NHS – one that will allow all staff to get email, directory services and data from test results. But not too long after that, Granger must do something much more delicate: organise medical prescriptions to be transferred electronically, and strengthen integrated care record services (ICRS) –
electronic means of tracking a patient’s health and social needs.

That would be great. But under Section 60 of the Health and Social Care Act 2001, once a data controller has made a patient’s record available, other unspecified data controllers – including, in rare circumstances, the secretary of state for health – can have access to it. The politics of privacy and personal health make NHS IT a test case for e-government; but with these kind of legal arrangements, electronic patient records may prove an intractable problem.

The barrier to e-government is neither poor market segmentation, nor the government’s failure to set millennial means tests. The barrier is certainly not, as SmartGov suggests, the government’s failure to couple strategic central guidance in government IT with decentralised projects that follow the underlying principles of regionally devolved assemblies (p60).

What slows e-government up is a parsimonious culture, for which IT can only be invested in if it saves the Treasury money. What makes e-government difficult is the indulgence the government gives popular fears about IT, from NHS patient records, through the radiation dangers of mobile phones, to the international abduction that may follow teenage participation in internet chatrooms.

The Work Foundation writes: ‘People tend to do what they have done before. Faced with a difficult choice, studies suggest that they will tend to stick with what they know, particularly if any move creates further choices or risks. For most citizens, the move to e-government can seem similarly risky and untested.’ (p29)

Well, the internet was never going to be universal in a hurry – and, despite all the fanfare that attended it, Clement Attlee’s welfare state was never universal either. But by giving up on universal access in favour of a segmented, coercive, yet also low-tech, incremental and local approach to IT, SmartGov lowers ambitions both of ‘e-‘, and of government.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

(1) Office of Government Commerce, A guide to eProcurement for the public sector, Autumn 2002

(2) eProcurement home, Office of Government Commerce

(3) Why e-procurement should take precedence over e-therapy, James Woudhuysen, Public Policy Forum website

(4) What IT’s for, James Woudhuysen, Guardian Unlimited

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Topics Science & Tech

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