Bonfire of the Vanities

Call it a retrospective if you like, I am wondering where the ‘e’ in government has worked for me in 2003 and I’m casting my mind back on the old year for evidence of a smooth and painless experience. But I can’t find one.

Together with my Christmas cards – am I allowed to call them that anymore? – is a reprimand from the VAT office. My quarterly payment was six days late and my knuckles are being firmly rapped.

If you look back to an earlier column, you will find me telling you I’m receiving red warning letters from the VAT man because the system can’t yet cope with my habit of paying electronically and on time. In December, I took the advice of my local VAT inspector and instructed Barclays Bank to issue a transfer on the 3rd December, three days before the VAT payment deadline. This proved to have been a bad idea. Barclays might have debited my account immediately but it took another six days to credit the funds to Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, because a weekend lay in the way, leaving me up the creek without the proverbial paddle.

Surely, this whole ‘e’ thing is supposed to make life simpler for business but all I’m seeing is a steady increase in red tape and complexity and more single points of failure coming in my direction. This leads to a consensus among my business friends that building any new IT service company today is not worth the stress and effort involved in dealing with different government departments and regulations.

Meanwhile, while an expensive and mushrooming bureaucracy is crushing domestic productivity and innovation in the belief that the right mix of technology and taxation hold the solution to the gross inefficiencies of the public sector. Through the lens of the Soham tragedy we can see that the collision between the criminal justice system and technology has given us speed cameras and CCTV but very little else to be proud of. Having outsourced any job, which does not involve carrying a truncheon or wearing a pointed helmet, a Metropolitan Police survey last year found that no cases whatsoever, zero per cent, was information about a conviction entered on the Police National Computer within the necessary twenty-eight days and yet parking, congestion charge or speeding fine can be issued within hours. Our policing, it appears, remains at the mercy of private-sector incompetents, the usual suspects responsible for large and expensive public sector failures in other vital areas of government.

December’s fourth UK Online Annual Report, tells us that eGovernment is a great success and we can expect more “Automation and integration of back office functions”. “Public sector internal administration”, we are told,” Should be standardised and made self-service". These are grand words but let’s face it, we are surrounded if not suffocated by examples of expensive failure in the most vital, mission critical areas of our society, health, taxation, education, transport, criminal justice, child support, social services, the list is endless. Technology might hold the answer but like the railways, once you start outsourcing the responsibilities you find the trains no longer run on time, the tracks are not maintained properly and many of the businesses involved don’t even manage to achieve the lowest common denominator of service, even with the billions of pounds of taxpayer funded technology at their disposal.

As we reach the end of 2003 I wonder if we are being consumed by our own ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. What if the public private partnership and a great deal of the ‘e’ in government is generating more expense and failure than we are prepared to admit and how much longer can we carry on before the wheels really start to fall off the public sector? Or maybe I’m wrong and December’s UK Online Report is a shining example of better chemistry through eGovernment. You tell me


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