E-government plans are doomed to failure

As we enter election week, a leaked report reveals major flaws in Labour's online ambitions
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

More doubt has been cast on Labour's ambitious e-government plans as a report leaked to the Guardian newspaper predicts it will fail in its goals.

The draft report -- compiled by a selection of politicians, civil servants and high-tech workers known collectively as Eurim (European Infomatics Markets group) -- criticises the government for its reliance on putting services online, claiming this is merely a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The report is not due for publication until after the election.

The government has congratulated itself in recent months for being on track to put all government services online by 2005, but not everyone is convinced the strategy has any real power to change the relationship between state and citizens. Earlier in the year, left-wing thinktank Demos condemned the government's obsession with targets and called on it to make a more radical shift in the way information was used and disseminated in the electronic age.

"This [report] is a vindication of what we have said that this obsession with targets is setting the government down the wrong track," said a spokesman for Demos. "The growth of e-government should be put at the centre of government as it will be fundamental for everything they do."

The man charged with overseeing the government's digital plans -- e-envoy Andrew Pinder -- has also come in for a roasting from a select committee of MPs, who accused him of being caught up in red tape. "The e-envoy has been absorbed into the machinery of Whitehall and is now an adjunct of the e-minister," the Trade and Industry select committee report concluded. "We are concerned at this mini-empire growing up in the shadow of the e-envoy. We greatly fear that the original concept of the e-envoy has been captured, tamed and bureaucratised."

UK Online is the government's flagship citizens' portal. It offers information, or what the Web site describes as a "helping hand" on important milestones such as moving home, bereavement and having a baby. It also has a forum in which citizens can express their views on government.

Getting services online forms the major part of Labour's e-commerce manifesto pledges. Broadband, on the other hand, gets only a passing mention. This has infuriated industry watchers, most of whom regard a high-speed infrastructure as by far the biggest issue if the government wants to fulfill its targets of being an e-commerce world leader.

The Cabinet Office remains convinced that putting all services online is the best way for government to play its part in the knowledge economy and a spokesman is bullish about hitting the 2005 deadline.

"A clear target has been set by the prime minister for all government services to be available electronically, and in a customer focused form, by 2005. The latest findings [from Autumn 2000] show that 42 percent of central government services are now delivered electronically and 73 percent will be enabled by 2002," he said.

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