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Marx Was Right About One Thing

The Republic of Yemen apparently wishes to investigate the opportunities for e-government in that country, and why not?

I was on a trip to the Middle East this month, and the United Nations have invited me to pop over to Sana'a in December for a chat with the Yemeni prime minister.

What about Hawaii, I asked. “Sorry, they already have e-government, but how about Baghdad?”

No thanks, I replied. "The Yemen sounds fine. Do you have any of those nice blue Kevlar vests I could borrow?"

On the last trip to the region, Kuwait in fact, I was representing myself and not the UK government, which meant my PowerPoint deck, could have a picture of Karl Marx with the caption “Bureaucracy is the ultimate purpose of the state", and a second photo of my friend Alan Mather with the quote “e-government is brutally hard”.

Anyway, this time, when people asked me for my opinion on the success of our own e-government programme, I was able to say what I thought, rather than offer the official message from Whitehall’s department of e-communcations or as it’s better known.

“E-government is supposed to involve a more streamlined and cost effective method of delivering government services and this is, after all, why you need it so much in the Arab world which still suffers from the legacy of 500 years of Ottoman bureaucracy."

“However, in the UK, while we are doing some great things with XML, we seem to have got it back to front, and the bureaucracy is steadily increasing, despite the introduction of expensive new technologies and ambitious e-government projects.”

I told them that we now have 524,770 people working for central government ministries and quangos, an increase on last year of 26,550 employees. And even though most people still don’t file their tax returns online, the army of the Inland Revenue, which has one of most expensive e-government projects of all, has grown by 13,000 more people.

By 2006 the UK’s public sector workforce is predicted to rise to 684,000 at a cost of £19.5bn. Since 1997, the cost of running central government departments has risen by 50% to £6.7bn, although the Office of Government Commerce has now negotiated a more favourable deal for Office licences with Microsoft and is trialling open source.

“In the UK, we proudly describe this as the advance of the information economy and the triumph of e-government, and you can have this too,” I declared.

"But,” said the Arab minister, “we are trying to streamline our top-heavy civil service, make it smaller and more efficient and certainly more cost effective than it’s been in the past.”

His friends from Egypt, Dubai and other states nodded. After all, this was the march of progress and didn’t the UK know about such things?

I explained that joined-up government tends to make the administration larger rather than smaller.

It creates more opportunity to create new public sector jobs around technologies that didn’t exist in the past, for example, speed cameras, congestion charges, taxation, equal opportunities statistics, the list is endless.

In the end, government becomes so efficient that it employs everyone, which brings us back to Karl Marx and bureaucracy as the ultimate purpose of the state.

“Believe me, in the UK, we have all the answers, and a Government Gateway too,” I said.

“I know,” said the man from Egypt, “You tried to sell it to us.”

“See,” I said. "This just proves that we in the UK with our e-government exchange programme can help the Egyptians master the science of bureaucracy and for the price of an airline ticket, we can lend you our Minister, Douglas Alexander too".


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