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Cover story: The People's Plug: What can offer us? track? We're soon to 
hear all about the delayed plans for the brave new world of government online. 
Michael Cross on the benefits and pitfalls: Putting the government online will 
  empower citizens and make public services quicker, more convenient and more   
   flexible. After all, isn't that what Information Technology is all about?   
                         (Guardian; 03/25/99)                         

   You've just got divorced, moved house and left your job to go self-employed. 
The good news is that you have survived three stressful `life-cycle episodes'. 
The bad news: you're going to have to spend the next six months telling 
different government departments of your various changes in status and dealing 
with the consequences of them getting the facts wrong.

   Wouldn't it be easier to do all the notification from an Internet terminal, 
or at a self-service kiosk next time you go shopping? And, while you're at it, 
rather than pay separate departments for national insurance, income tax , VAT 
and TV licence, wouldn't it be simpler to make out a single payment to `HMG'? 
All this could be possible in the next few years under plans for conducting 
government business online. They will appear in a white paper, provisionally 
called Modernising Government, which the Cabinet Office minister, Jack 
Cunningham, is due to publish on Tuesday. The contents are reasonably 
predictable. The buzzwords are `customer-focused' `joined-up' and `information 

   According to papers prepared by the Cabinet Office's Central IT Unit (Citu), 
the plans are to: l Remodel government around its `customers' (citizens and 
businesses) rather than government departments; l Give people a choice of ways 
to contact the government, including through private firms such as 
supermarkets; l Integrate services across agencies, departments and local 

   The goal is to end wasteful and inefficient duplication in the way 
government handles our affairs. The future will be a network of `one stop 

   So far, so good. But  there is no obvious route towards this Nirvana. We all 
deal with many different government departments, local, national and semi-
autonomous agencies. All have their own ways of handling information; different 
government departments even hold names and addresses in different incompatible 

   Cunningham has a magic wand: IT.

   The white paper will propose linking agencies' information systems on a 
colossal national intranet, which could have up to 600,000 users. It will be 
accessible to the public at post offices, supermarkets, self-service kiosks and 
even at home through cable TV.

   The Government claims that putting its services online will bring four key 
improvements: it will make them quicker, more convenient, more flexible and, 
will `empower' the citizen.

   The white paper will also talk about the possibilities offered by the 
Internet, smartcards and digital TV. However, it will avoid committing to 
specific technical solutions.

   Modernising Government was originally due out a year ago, under the title 
Better Government, sponsored by David Clark, then public service minister with 
an enthusiasm for IT. But it was shelved when Clark was reshuffled last autumn, 
then postponed to ensure that it conforms to other government priorities, such 
as preparing computers to handle the euro.

   It has one high-profile fan. Tony Blair has said publicly that, by 2002, one 
quarter of all dealings between the public and government will be carried out 
electronically. (The Prime Minister left himself an escape hatch - 
`electronically' could just mean using the phone, or having state benefits paid 
into a bank account rather than in cash, as about 30 per cent of claimants do 
already.) But 25 per cent is a modest target by international standards. Citu 
says Britain already lags behind Canada, Singapore and Australia in 
implementing information-age government.

   The delays to the white paper are not just to do with politics. If 
Modernising Government is to prove more than a vague policy statement, the 
white paper will have to tackle three formidable obstacles.

   The first is how to identify the citizen. Unlike countries such as Denmark, 
which has had a central system of ID numbers since the early 1970s, the UK has 
no national identity scheme. Different government departments use different 
identity numbers. The most comprehensive of these, the new 10-digit NHS number, 
was introduced on the strict promise that no other agency would use it. The 
white paper will take pains to avoid the issue of national identity cards, 
widely seen as a political death-trap. (ID cards were Conservative policy until 
1996, when MPs who had demanded them as a law-and-order measure discovered that 
a national card would have to bear the EU flag.) Instead the white paper will 
suggest a choice. We will be able to carry a smartcard containing an encrypted 
digital signature, verified by a personal identity number, to use at kiosks and 
automated teller machines. Or we will be able to deal with call centres by 
setting up `authentication' routines, as telephone banks today identify 
customers by asking for facts such as their mother's maiden name.

   Both ideas will raise eyebrows in the civil liberties lobby. `Voluntary' ID 
cards rapidly become obligatory, a process known as function creep.

   The security of call centres depends on a tape recording being kept of all 
conversations to resolve possible disputes. This is not an ideal way to assuage 
fears about `Big Brother'. While most people are aware that government 
departments already share personal data for `enforcement functions' - usually 
detecting benefit fraud - the Government will have to obey data protection laws 
by ensuring that people understand that data collected as part of the delivery 
of one government service may be used for another.

   The white paper will lay much stress on the need for confidentiality. 
Cunningham will stress his commitment to data protection. This is not just a 
concern of Guardian readers: Citu's papers admit that independent research 
showed data protection as a `significant public concern'. The white paper will 
also offer the bait of `privacy enhancing technologies' (PETs). This means 
using encryption to allow individuals to control how their information is used. 
Other PETs likely to figure will allow citizens to check their own files more 
easily to ensure they are accurate.

   Who will pay for all the new  networks, kiosks and terminals? Electronic 
government enthusiasts invariably promise that the technology saves money. Last 
month, a survey by Kable, a specialist consultancy, claimed that e-commerce 
could save central and local government  pounds 4 billion a year - equivalent 
to a penny off income tax.

   The white paper will avoid making such promises. However, it will envisage 
private industry setting up and running `access paths' or channels under 
schemes similar to the private finance initiative (PFI), claiming that some of 
the infrastructure is already in place and is ready to be adapted.

   One crucial component is the Government Secure Intranet, launched in April 
1998, and operated by Cable & Wireless. It is likely to grow to 300,000 civil 
servants `with onward connectivity to a similar number of officials and service 
providers in the wider public sector'. Connecting all departmental databases to 
this intranet would take two to three years.

   One idea likely to be in the white paper is that of a `Government Portal', 
rather like the Yahoo Web front page. The snag with the PFI is that, by signing 
up individual competing companies to take over different departments' systems, 
it tends to entrench rather than abolish institutional differences.

   EDS, which runs the Inland Revenue's tax-administration systems, is a bitter 
rival to ICL, which has just won a contract at HM Customs and Excise. And so 
far, the experience of privatising government IT has caused as many problems as 
it has solved.

   The third major obstacle is how to overcome the crisis in confidence over 
large-scale IT projects. The white paper is coming out at a spectacularly bad 
time for government IT projects. The Government already spends about  pounds 2 
billion a year on IT just to keep its traditional services running - usually 
badly. The Immigration and Naturalisation Department is the latest government 
IT fiasco to hit the headlines. A  pounds 70 million office-automation system, 
supplied by Siemens Business Services through the PFI, is badly behind 
schedule, delaying visas for thousands of applicants.

   Last week, Social Security minister Stephen Timms tried to limit the damage 
caused by another IT fiasco, the Benefits Agency's National Insurance Recording 
System 2 (Nirs2) computer by announcing an automatic  pounds 10 compensation 
payment to everyone who has suffered from the delays.

   In Parliament next week, Cunningham is likely to dismiss these failures as 
symptomatic of the old way of doing things. `It is no longer acceptable for 
departments and agencies to build systems and services that reflect the 
bureaucratic structure of government.' The implication is that shiny, new IT 
provided across departments by the private sector, will be less accident-prone. 
We shall see.

   But IT fiascoes don't hit only the traditional public sector. Last week, the 
De La Rue company announced the scrapping of an `over complex' IT system as 
part of a  pounds 40 million shake-up. And Citu's consultation papers say that 
delivering public services over the Internet `poses a set of information 
management problems which are arguably larger than any that have been 
successfully tackled' so far.

   As a final challenge, the white paper will have to sell the idea of 
information-age government to the citizen. A strong message that emerged from 
the consultation process was that electronic services will have to be better 
than existing services if customers are to be won over. This is a tall order.

   The danger is that all electronic government will achieve is to move the 
queue at the counter to a queue at the computer terminal.

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