Brits to go all in with online delivery of government services

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wants delivery of ALL government services to go online within four years. At the same time, he wants to shutter many if not most government offices. Is this crazy or just embracing the inevitable?
Written by John Dodge, Contributor

Prime Minister Gordon Brown was scheduled to announce today that all British citizens will have their own web page to access ALL government services, according a story in TimesOnline.com. The ambitious idea is to push ALL (yes, ALL) government services online within four years.

That would slash billions in cost for providing face-to-face government services. Indeed, the headline emphasizes the creation of the long elusive "paperless society.' Folks, they've been talking about the paperless society for the 30 years I've covered technology and it still has not happened. But intense financial pressures seems to be forcing the issue.

Berners-Lee. credit: Radford.edu

None other than World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee is Brown's top advisor on this massive  project. The unassuming and soft-spoken Berners-Lee, a Brit who lives in Boston and works at MIT, says it's time to radically change the way government services are delivered in the U.K. by using his creation, now 15 years-old.

“I don’t want to go to a government office to do a government thing. It should all be online. That saves time for people and it saves money for the Government — the processing of a piece of paper and mailing it back costs many times more than it costs to process something electronically. There will come a point where you don’t need all the physical offices any more,” he said in the TimesOnline story.

Over the next 10 years, tax, passport, housing benefit and other government offices would be phased out. The savings are projected to be staggering: £900 million a year just getting those online who don't presently have access to the Internet and £600 million from using phone text message reminders to reduce missed healthcare appointments.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown

In a socialistic country like the U.K., the plan has plenty of critics and cynics.

“You cannot underestimate a whole range of risk factors including upfront costs, data protection, identity theft and social exclusion, with many people already irritated by online transactions. Roughly £12 billion of taxpayers' money has also just been wasted on the National Health Service IT project and there has been a long history of government computer problems,” says union official Jonathan Baume.

What's more, critics charge scores of government workers could lose their jobs, thus plunging the country deeper into recession even though the private sector would benefit enormously from massive IT projects. Get your driver's license on Amazon...that doesn't sound so crazy.

Indeed, the most comments in response to this story are decidedly negative, which goes to show the Brits have as little faith in their government as we do in ours. Probably less. They repeatedly ask how 80 and 90-year-olds would access services. Another says just get rid of the government workers without "this idiotic scheme." The British have not lost their trademark sense of humor.

Says one: "Looks like I'd better start giving my 77 year old Mum some IT training! It's a slightly less bonkers idea than the Government's proposal!"

My take is this will happen in every country to one degree or another regardless of whether it makes government more efficient or responsive. It will be driven by the simple desire to cut costs....and in the process, services.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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