Eyes Wide Shut

I’ve been sitting here for ages trying to come up with an appropriate football theme but all I can think of is a list of ‘Own Goals’, the very best fumble of the last month going to The Inland Revenue, which obligingly allowed people filing their tax returns on-line, to view details of other peoples’ returns. Given the Revenue’s unenviable record for losing information and blaming the subsequent disappearance on the citizen, this new ‘Twinning’ feature isn’t such a bad idea, as you will at least know that you have a totally random and independent witness in another tax district, who has read your personal financial details and can support your claim that your information is on the system. What the Revenue do after this is anyone’s guess but last year, over a period of months, I received several bloodcurdling demands for my PIID, which after faxing copies personally and through my accountants three times, with covering letters, they finally conceded that they weren’t going to repossess my children after all.

Electronic Government is of course a subject I think about on a regular basis and when you scrape away its cling-film wrapping of rhetoric and shiny technology, you’re left with a central proposition that is based upon trust. Rather like Moses leading his people to the Promised Land, we need to believe that the Red Sea will indeed part, with a little help from Microsoft and that our tax returns and anything else transacted digitally with government, will arrive on ‘the other side’, complete, secure and with its feet still dry.

In many respects, we are, in the UK, a shining example to the rest of the world when it comes to the development of our own eGovernment processes. This kind of accolade may draw cynical smiles from readers but foreign governments, including even the Iranians admire the very structured planning and the effort to define a common standard, which underpins behind the 2005 vision of joined-up government. Of course, the problem isn’t so much in the planning as in the delivery, whether this happens to involve air traffic control systems or ‘pay as you earn’. Regardless of how good the software and hardware might happen to be, the integration, connecting all the front end ‘stuff’ to the back-end stuff, quite possibly through an XML cloud, appears to be constantly fraught with the potential for disaster.

I’m never entirely sure these days whether the monumental ‘cock-ups’ that constantly plague the Public Sector are the result of technology being cynically oversold by big corporations or are the responsibility of senior civil servants who still believe in fairies.

If you work in IT long enough, you learn that the more integrated, ambitious and expensive a project, the less likely it is to work first time or even at all, which is why all the biggest players in the hardware business are switching into the more lucrative services game and have developed a healthy interest in eGovernment.
Unfortunately, embarrassment is the heavy price of progress and eGovernment, like football, looks very much like a game of two halves.

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