E-government plans criticised

Civil servants say more co-ordination is needed
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Government plans to go digital were criticised from within its own ranks on Monday for being fragmented and under-resourced.

The Labour administration has given e-government the highest possible profile, promising to put all government services online by 2008. But while the government offers images of a profitable, high-tech future, reports from its own accounts department have criticised government Web sites for inefficiency and failing to respond to citizens' needs.

At an award ceremony in London, Moray Angus, head of the new media unit at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, added his voice to the criticism as he accepted an award for best government Web site. "More co-ordination is needed within the Cabinet Office," he said. "Until we have more joined-upness, we will fail and end up being split on many fronts."

The award ceremony, hosted by e-envoy Alex Allan, was meant to celebrate government Internet achievements but there were rumbles of discontent from the civil servants and officials charged with delivering Tony Blair's e-policy.

Departments are bombarded with Net initiatives from head office, some of which -- like making paper lists of all the things departments have online -- are unnecessary, according to Angus. He also criticised government for not giving enough money to Web projects. The DTI's flagship consumer site was built on a budget of just £15,000. "We are getting by on minimal resources and are not yet able to do the visionary things IBM and Microsoft would like us to," Angus concluded.

His discontent was echoed by other nominees. Fiona Dick, accepting the award for the Government Information and Communication Service, the government's recruitment site, pointed out the difficulty of keeping IT skilled workers. "You train them up and you will probably lose them," she said.

Tom Adams, representing the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, claimed "very few" people in his department were interested in setting up a Web site. Stuart Sarson of the DTI criticised the civil service mindset for failing to take risks with Net projects.

It is not all bad news, though. Most of the gathered officials recognise the important of the Internet and the dramatic difference it can make to government services. The Radio Communications Agency, for example, has seen its hits soar to half a million a day since it put the auction for third-generation mobile licenses live on its site. The GICS site has dramatically cut the number of paper documents it sends out since putting information on the Web.

E-envoy Alex Allan admitted there is a shortage of resources and said he recognised the need for standardisation across government. "We need to do more joining-up and improve content so that people are not just downloading information but can fill in forms and pay online for services," he said. "Citizens will demand this of government as they do more and more commercial transactions online. Pressure will come from the centre and from the citizen."

Ministers are due to attend a special session of Cabinet on Thursday to discuss Internet issues. On Monday, Allan will launch the government's e-policy, including a new government portal which can be personalised.

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