The public may show little interest in e-government unless it is cheaper, faster and easier for people to carry out important tasks online than by traditional methods, according to an influential report published on Thursday.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has recommended that some of the cost savings that the government will make by providing its services online should be passed on to users. If implemented, this could mean it would be significantly cheaper to buy a driving licence or get a new passport by using a Web-based service, instead of sending an application by post or by visiting a post office, for example.
The government is committed to offering all its services online by 2005 but Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO, has warned MPs that take-up could be low if many members of the public cannot see any advantage in accessing them electronically.
"Departments need to set take-up targets and develop incentives to encourage people to use electronic services. These might include transferring some of the cost savings to users, providing free services and faster service delivery," warned Bourn.
The NAO's report, Better public services through e-government, also identifies other threats that the government must combat if it is committed to providing its services online to a large percentage of the population.
The NAO is concerned that while just over half of the 524 services that government departments routinely provide are already online, the vast majority of these only provide information rather than letting people carry out transactions. "Seven services (3 percent) provide grants or benefits online and none collect revenue," warns the NAO.
Another NAO concern, given the digital divide, is that people without access to the Internet may be excluded from the benefit of e-government. "Only 7 per cent of those in the lowest income group have Internet access compared to 71 per cent of those on higher incomes," warns the report.
It recommends that government departments should actively promote key services that meet the need of specific groups. For example, a Web site targeted specifically at the elderly could be created, with information about issues such as pensions and cold weather fuel payments.