An embarrassing admission by the Inland Revenue earlier this month that staff were re-keying in data received from online self-assessment returns by hand has cast yet more doubt over Whitehall's target of wiring up all government services by 2005.
A report published by the Cabinet Office's Central IT Unit (CITU) claims that the government has only got one third of the way to hitting its target.
But some would say that even this estimate is high. Much of this scepticism stems from the government having to own up to questionable definitions of progress. Last autumn it had to scale back its claims, after revelations that telephones and faxes had been added to the list of electronic services.
"It depends on your definition of electronic," says Doug Forbes, management consultant and managing director of website publication, the Centre for E-Government.
Businesses can now file annual reports and any changes to their corporate status electronically at Companies House, Forbes adds, but such a development is not automatically likely to generate confidence in the government's claims. "Are people able to be self-serviced - namely, can customers look at their accounts online? There isn't much realisation of that in the civil service. Can you submit VAT claims electronically or benefits online? There's a lot going on, but not much that can be done now," he claims.
Clive Fenton, executive director at ICL, is understandably more optimistic. The services giant has just announced a 10-year, £350m ebusiness contract with the Home Office. "Government online services tend to offer a view, rather than transaction, capability at the moment. But I think in the next 12 months or so we will see progress."
That particular contract will see ICL implement systems that should enable civil servants to handle consumer complaints and communicate and transact with the police and prisons online. Fenton insists that they should see some benefits soon. "Some of the quick wins will be by web-enabling legacy systems, but it's also going to be about replacing back-office systems, such as human resources and financials. There will be a programme of long-term projects, but you want quick wins along the way," he argues.
Alex Allan, the government's Electronic Envoy, adds: "I am absolutely clear that services have to be accessible online. People were worried that pushing the online stuff wasn't doable, but that has changed. I was never comfortable allowing phone calls to count as an electronic service."
But he insists that there is no question of "fudging" the figures in an attempt to achieve targets, and reiterated that the definition of electronic services had been tightened last autumn.
He maintains that the progress made so far has been significant, citing the Foreign Office's travel advice website and the public records office as examples of sites offering online services and information.
Other sections of government are more cautious. "Of the services offered, most are currently information-based rather than transactional," admits Cabinet Office Minister Ian McCartney.
Bridging the gap
Despite its upbeat tone, the CITU report reveals that Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Singapore are well ahead of the UK in terms of technological readiness for electronic government. Each is better able to link up back-office systems with front-end customer-facing ones - a gap that must be bridged if the 2005 goal is to be realised.
To address this problem, Forbes says civil service departments should web-enable legacy systems instead of attempting to replace the existing IT infrastructure wholesale. "It might take years to renew all the legacy systems, and there could be six major systems all linked up. To do it in phases might prove too costly," he explains.
Allan adds: "In the longer run, to get all the advantages of online delivery we need to make sure we have some new systems in place. But it will vary department by department. Not all departments are going to chuck away every computer they own."
The E-envoy is looking to an agreement with BT to kick-start the next phase of development. The telco will implement a central portal to enable consumers to access all public sector internet sites, while Microsoft and Compaq will jointly manage gateways for switching customers between back-office systems.
Fenton agrees that these deals are pivotal to governmental progress in providing electronic services. However, although BT plans to launch an initial portal service this autumn, the project will not be fully operational until summer 2001.
But public support for electronic initiatives will also be crucial if the government is to meet its targets. A recent People's Panel study of public opinion by the Cabinet Office found that more than half of those surveyed believe the new technology will make it easier to deal with government. And figures from the Office of National Statistics, which were published earlier this month, show that 6.5 million households now have online access - opening up 25 per cent of the UK population to online service delivery.
Allan admits, however, that the UK remains in the first division of electronic services compared with "the Manchester Uniteds in Scandinavia", which means that much work is still needed to upgrade public sector technology and make more services available online.
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