Newsbit

Issue date: 6 May 1999
Article source: Computer Weekly News

Public snubs e-government


Stephen Phillips

The Post Office is to pull the plug on a 3m project piloting government services over the Internet, amid public indifference and technical problems.

The Open for Business project spans eight sites in Norfolk where start-up companies and new employees can register details with 10 government departments in a single online transaction using PCs. Five information kiosks give details on local services.

The project, which was bankrolled by a consortium of the Post Office and nine leading suppliers, has had just 11 transactions since its launch last June. This figure is contained in a confidential interim report by consultancy French Thornton to be released to consortium members next week.

The e-commerce project will be axed in June, the Post Office said.

Open for Business's problems are a major blow for Labour's information age government aspirations.

The project is widely seen as a reference site for the Modernising Government white paper, published in March, which outlines a masterplan to deliver 100% of public services electronically by 2008.

Its use of HTML-based "intelligent" forms and digital signature smartcards and encryption keys to authenticate online transactions is one of the main models for service delivery under the white paper.

But site managers said the project had been poorly marketed and public confidence had been undermined by technical problems.

Norwich Enterprise Agency Trust, the most popular site, has had up to 40% of transactions voided by system crashes.

A Post Office spokeswoman admitted that Open for Business had been hampered by technical problems. But she said the information-only kiosks had proved popular. "The figures look bad, but we didn't want a high-volume transaction. It was only meant to be a 12-month trial," she added.

The lack of interest in the project must re-awaken debate on public attitudes to electronic government. A nine-month study of 4,000 citizens and business owners published by the Cabinet Office last November found that 20% were "antagonistic" toward electronic public services and a "significant hardcore" rejected smartcards.

Open for business is returned to sender

June 98: Open for Business launched

August/September: Norwich Bank Plain Post Office reports jammed printer after customers mistake kiosk print-out slot for letter box

September: children found surfing the Net on transaction-based PC at Norwich Inland Revenue Enquiry Centre. PC removed without recording one transaction after software and hardware problems

Up to November: staff at transaction sites have to take print-outs of electronic forms and send them to government departments by post.



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