This is the reality of e-government

Cabinet adviser and seasoned government minister shed light

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IMG SRC="http://www.theregister.co.uk/images/adverts/blaircro.gif" ALIGN="left">Rarely has a week gone by in the last six months when a government minister hasn't held up some venture, software, partnership or proposal as yet another example of what New Labour is doing to thrust the UK into the digital world. For the most part, these are insignificant excursions into the Internet world, but none of them harm the central message: that the UK is to become the centre of the world e-conomy. You'll find very few people that disagree heartily with this intention but reality, as we all know, is an entirely different beast. Fairly early on in Tony Blair's e-vangelising (sorry, we'll try to keep the prefixes to a minimum), he hit the embarrassing brick wall of the government's own efforts. Put simply, Whitehall didn't have a clue about this Internet malarkey and their websites demonstrated as much. Recognising this as an enormous stumbling block, Tony appointed a dedicated e-minister, put pressure on departments to sort out their act and proudly announced that all government services will be online by 2005. As admirable as this deadline is, we don't believe the original plans for a complete e-government will ever be realised in this country. The hybrid that does result will also not arrive within at least two years of the 2005 date. How have we come to this conclusion? We'll tell you. The Register had a couple of candid chats with two men in the know. Dag Osterman is the head of tax for the Swedish government and his department is fronting a drive towards electronic democracy that the UK Parliament can only dream of at the moment. Stephen Chandler of Hewlett-Packard is working closely with the Swedish government on their plans and also advises the UK cabinet on how to achieve its own goals. So how come many of e-government's selling points will be lost on the way to producing a working model, and why won't it make its 2005 deadline? The interconnection of government departments, business and individual citizens will happen, but in arriving at a solution, much of the simple beauty and effectiveness of the original concept will be cut out. Of course there will be aspects of the grand scheme that will be finished in time and these will be held up as shining examples, but this is an enormous project which will take far longer to fully realise. Why?

  • Civil service obstruction The first thing you need to know about e-government is that it will mean massive job losses in the civil service. The Swedish Social Security department has estimated it will lose 20 per cent of its staff. Even if you discount the enormous internal feuds and power games between Whitehall departments, cooperation is unlikely to be high when people realise they are working themselves out of a job.
  • Government interference Political capital in such a high-profile campaign is enormous - what MP could resist? Add to this the historical precedent that politicians will water down any legislation that makes them more accountable to the public. E-government, in theory at least, is about true democracy and openness.
  • The people's concerns The Swedish system under construction requires individuals to have a unique ID to access the system and all information stored and moved around the system uses this ID as a tag. This is not a problem in Sweden - all Swedes have a citizen ID card - but in the UK there is no such setup, and there has traditionally been heavy opposition to the introduction of such a card. Theoretically, national insurance numbers or birth certificate numbers could be used, eliminating the need for a brand new system, but then without a smartcard ID the system's uses would be heavily curtailed. Also, since a huge amount of information on individuals will be available at the touch of a button, accusations of Big Brother behaviour are unavoidable.
  • The deadline Interestingly, the Swedes have not produced a deadline for their e-gov system already under construction. This is almost certainly a cultural difference. The UK loves its deadlines so things can be worked as absolutes - it is either a success or a failure. It also fits nicely with New Labour philosophy. This deadline is unlikely to be met though (see below), increasing pressure and forcing shortcuts and fudges to the system - it's the IT way.
  • Legislation Dag Osterman smiled when he was asked whether new legislation had to be passed to implement his e-gov scheme. "Yes, lots." The same is going to be true for this country. While the Opposition has agreed to work with the government in pushing through relevant egislation, this takes time. Equally, the political atmosphere is hotting up as we enter New Labour's mid-term. Delaying tactics on such a well-publicised aim is likely to buy the Conservatives some concessions, plus a whole range of privacy issues have still to be argued out.
  • Cost No matter which way you look at it, e-gov is going to be a very expensive business. Not only will large funds need to be diverted but IT budgets in Whitehall may need to be revolutionised. High costs means cutbacks on "non-essential" items. Ease-of-use is likely to suffer. Also, businesses and consumers may expect incentives if they are to put in a new infrastructure.
  • Sheer size: The Swedish government is at least two years ahead of the UK government. It has decided its approach, put the contract out to tender, given the contract to IBM, created a working committee and started the first stages of roll-out. Despite this, Dag Osterman was not confident it would all be completed by 2005. The maths is not difficult to work out. So what are the Swedes doing and what direction is the UK government going in? The basic building block of the Swedish government's plans is a black box called SHS. This is a Swedish acronym which means something akin to "working in co-operation". This is what IBM is developing (it has a five-year contract) and it will sit at the end and start of every transaction process. It has been developed to work with all operating systems and is completely proprietary. SHS will take every output going into the system, label it in XML and encode it with S/MIME and a digital certificate/signature. This will be picked by the relevant party through a second SHS box and translated to the relevant terminal. There will be three levels of security in the system, depending on the seriousness of the data. High security will be used for the police, medium for companies such as the Post Office and low for simple Internet transactions. The whole process is being led by the tax office which has already produced tax return forms. The tax office also heads a SHS council which includes most government agencies. The council's job is to co-ordinate system roll-out - something which Mr Osterman assured us was going very smoothly. The process will start a large number of government-to-government pilots and then expand out to encompass businesses and then citizens. Most communication is expected to be through PCs. As for the UK, it appears as though a similar setup will be followed. Currently, Whitehall is tying its front-end websites together but this is purely a cosmetic exercise and will have very little practical use as a tool for e-government. Unfortunately, many governments departments still have proprietary technology as their foundation and so it is hard to see how anything but the "black box" approach would be economically viable. (HP's Stephen Chandler admitted he would be delighted to take this job on for them.) The government's e-commerce Bill has made it through Parliament and is waiting for Royal Ascent. However, the Regulation of Interceptory Powers (RIP) Bill, which contains several vital elements for e-gov (including digital signatures) is having a harder time. It has had its third reading but hasn't gone through the House of Lords yet. The government wants it passed by October. Apparently, current Cabinet thinking is that Web-enabled TVs will be the best way to involve citizens in the final scheme. Since we are a nation of tele addicts, this seems a fair point. One thing is for sure: government will have to drag itself into the digital era and the sooner it does so, the better. How successful these initial plans are could be the defining moment for the New Labour government. ®

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