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Not Me .Gov

Unisys’ Brian Hadfield may be a little harsh when he says "The government needs to stop paying lip service to 'joined up government' and start doing it. Unlike many other countries, the UK has opted for the ‘Big Picture’ vision of eGovernment and a strategy that goes with it and has found, in attempting to implement it, that Government is big, very big indeed.

It’s true to say that the message from the trenches is at times, very much at odds with the message from the top. When I meet people at Local Authority level, the frequently reflect the Unisys research by telling me that they feel under-resourced and have day jobs too. They understand why we need to streamline public sector services but invariably, they feel they are being pushed too fast towards a goal they can’t possibly achieve in the time they have been given.

Through thinking big, Central Government risks losing sight of the wood for the trees. Expectations are high and there’s a risk in every country, that eGovernment is perceived as a plumbing exercise, connecting what I call the legacy stuff to all the Web stuff, through a vapid cloud of emerging standards.

No government can really claim that the great eGovernment experiment is a success. Take-up for services is still in the low, single digit percentages and critics claim that there are far too many pilot projects and examples of parallel services as the Public Sector attempts to use the technology to drag it from one state of existence to another. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be doing it but the IT cost of so many different projects is quite breathtaking, when you consider that the return on investment is still nowhere in sight.

Government describes this as “Cost Avoidance” as opposed to cost reduction but it takes an expensive chunk out of the public purse whichever way you look at it and it’s hard to find anyone who thinks they have enough money to deliver what they are expected to. The cost of e-government is soaring in Europe, and is estimated to increase by 28% to £3.9 billion this year Meanwhile, pilot projects come and go. Take dkTV, the digital television pilot involving, among others, Camden, Newham and the BBC. I was on the original board and last month, it finally ran out of money, just as it was starting to work. And then there’s the collapse of the £260 million Individual Learning Account project that ran £93m over budget before it was abandoned, two small drops in an ocean of technology spending.

It’s easy to criticize ambitious planning and eGovernment presents a very large and soft target for the critics. We know – I think - why we want eGovernment and we know - I think - that there is no other option available if we are to sensibly reduce the cost of supporting and streamlining a bloated Public Sector. The challenge is that while joined-up government looks very good on paper, it involves a volatile and unpredictable mixture of expectations, people and technology, all of which are in constant collision. Valuable resources are pulled into the eGovernment orbit and development costs continue to escalate with no real end in sight.

Perhaps, my wife, who once upon a time used to work at the No10 press office for Bernard Ingham, has the right view when she commented, that “Government is like a one-legged man on a bicycle. Once it’s committed to change, however foolish or ambitious, it has to keep pedaling until the next election gives it an excuse to fall off”. Hopefully and by then, the technology will have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams and as a nation, we’ll be so completely wired into UK Online, we won’t notice.

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