It’s All About ‘E’

Internet threat to 800,000 in public jobs”, screams the editorial in the Sunday Times. “e-Envoy says that a fifth of public servants could lose their jobs over the next ten years because the Internet will make them redundant”.

After a long sleep, it seems that the Sunday Times and indeed, the Public Sector unions, may have just woken-up to the arrival of ‘Disintermediation’ and The Information Society? Take the banking sector as an example. First there was the arrival of ATM machines in the eighties and with them, came the opportunity to dramatically downsize the workforce. Then came the arrival of on-line banking and banking became leaner still, with some, like Egg, disappearing into cyber-space completely.

Eventually, most of the high-street banks will disappear, mine already has, and only those customers with acceptable credit ratings and Internet access, will have access to ‘The Bank that likes to say yes’.

What happens, I wonder, when the promise of Broadband Britain becomes a distinct reality and the greater part of the population starts ordering their supermarket shopping direct from Tesco.Com? Where will the tens of thousands of people now working on the checkout counters find work? Perhaps one day, there will only be two kinds of job available, either you’re a knowledge worker or a parking warden.

The world has changed around us in the space of less than twenty years and while technology may make our lives a little smoother, it also threatens to make the contribution of millions of relatively unskilled people irrelevant.

Twenty years ago, 43% of employment was in businesses with more than five hundred people. By the beginning of the last decade it was 34% and at the turn of the millennium, it was approximately 27%.

The question of ‘streamlining’ the public sector is an uncomfortable question for many governments now pursuing their different ‘e’ agendas. Most if not all governments, those like Brazil, Greece and Kuwait, have a vision of what technology can achieve in replacing tedious, inefficient and costly public services, replacing them with a citizens Web page and a transaction engine, linked across multiple government departments. The ideal state is of course close to invisible government, friendly, sterile, efficient and fully automated at the same time and when it works, much like Internet banking, the people wonder how they ever managed without it.

But in many countries across the world, the public sector represents a home for the over-qualified and the long-term unemployable. In others, mostly English-speaking countries, a process of streamlining, has been producing an increasingly thinner and frequently overworked and technology-dependent public-sector for the last two decades.

How many of us would wish to turn back the clock and return to a time of queuing at the local branch of a bank to withdraw money or pay a telephone bill? How many of us would breathe a sigh of relief if we never had to visit another Post Office again to queue interminably to pay our road tax?

Institutions matter but not in any nostalgic sense. As a society we need to better understand where “joined-up” government is leading, rather than agonise too much over what it might be replacing.

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