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eGovernment, The New Marxism?

It’s an unusual title for a column but if you think about it, eGovernment is taking on the appearance of an ideological struggle and perhaps more so in this country than anywhere else I can think of.

"The bureaucracy”, said Marx, “Takes itself to be the ultimate purpose of the state" and elsewhere in the world, other countries have been a little less revolutionary in mixing new technology with a political vision of public sector reform. In Britain, with 30% of the workforce now employed by the public sector, we’ve imported the discarded icon of Lenin, ‘hailing a taxi’ and today, instead of pointing to a future which promises an ideal of total communism, he might be encouraging our own public sector towards something even more radical and unlikely, 100% joined-up government.

In fact, the e-Envoy, Andrew Pinder, has come clean and admitted Government will miss its target for putting all its services online by 2005. We all knew this in 2002. What matters, says Pinder, is that sites deliver but deliver what? Pinder is quoted as saying “There are some brilliant offerings available — the JobCentre Plus site, where people can find virtually every job in the country, and the Foreign Office site’s travel information. But there are an awful lot of other sites which are very little used. The public sector needs to understand we’re about providing access based on our customers’ needs — not those which Government sees as important.”

What interests me about the new Marxism that flows from party headquarters in the 21st century, is that its costs and its consequences, like its arguments, remain largely unchallenged, like any other five-year plan in the past. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), in the face of fierce criticism from MPs, has launched into the process of outsourcing its IT services to the private sector under a deal worth almost £1.5 billion.

One Labour MP, David Taylor, expressed concern that decisions had been made to outsource IT delivery before a Departmental IT strategy was in place. He accused DEFRA's management of "rushing" to finalise its IT strategy by the end of March 2003 to meet its timetable for procurement: "It is therefore a strategy to support the programme rather than reflect the true business needs of DEFRA" the House was told.

Examples like this exist perhaps because our own eGovernment programme is built upon a political rather than a technology principle as it stumbles from one expensive departmental fudge to the next.

There are manifest examples of where technology and IT investment is working at the local government level but these still represent silos of progress and certainly don’t offer the citizen an impression of joined-up government. After all, if central government was even remotely joined-up, I doubt the Home Office would be losing tens of thousands of asylum seekers a year, after they pass through the doors of Lunar House in Croydon.

When I reported on last November’s ‘eSummit’ in London, I commented that what was missing from the celebration was a torchlight procession around Westminster Square. Today, I am no closer to understanding where the real benefit to the citizens of the UK lie within the costly eGovernment programme that will be paid for with our steadily increasing taxes.

What are we really trying to achieve other than build websites “That deliver”? You and I in business know that behind every Website there has to be a fully integrated Backoffice system, a streamlined and joined-up process that doesn’t exist across our own public sector. What makes Singapore different from Streatham or Sunderland and what should we expect from an unrestrained government pouring expensive technology into what appears to be a bottomless pit of bureaucracy?

Karl Marx may have had the first word but when it comes to discussing the progress of joined-up government in the UK, the last word goes to Groucho Marx:

“I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it”


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