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UK gov pilots services, info via MSN Messenger

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Britain's UKonline government portal is currently running a pilot project in conjunction with Microsoft's MSN Messenger. A UKonline tab has been added to Messenger, and from there you can link through to various UKonline services, plus other UK government services, including NHS Direct.

According to the E-Envoy's CEO of e-delivery (our man in the black BMW with tinted windows and a cargo of funny sweeties) Alan Mather, the pilot is intended to explore the use of alert systems and messenger services "to see if this is a channel we can use to deliver content and, ultimately, transactions." This could go as far as issuing personalised alerts, file your tax return now and so on. The content, he says, comes from UKonline's content management system running on Sun servers, and if the experiment is successful then it'll be rolled out to Yahoo, AOL "and anyone else that has something like this."

So not Microsoft only then? But today we can't help noticing that the E-Envoy's ecumenical efforts seem to land us with a picture of the Forth Bridge (how appropriate) and an unsupported browser (Opera 6.0 on Windows 2000, since you ask) message at the Gateway home page, http://www.gateway.gov.uk. An isolated glitch or are we going backwards, Alan?

Given that a lot of people do use Messenger, it's difficult to argue that this is an experiment the UK government shouldn't be performing. But we'll try anyway.

The objective here from the government's point of view is to build traffic and awareness of e-government services. Performance will be reviewed over the next month, but at the moment it appears to be boosting traffic by about 50 per cent.

Microsoft is not being paid for the pilot though, so what's in it for Redmond? MSN gets extra channels that give users access to potentially useful government information and services, so maybe you could argue it's attractive content for MSN, and that MSN should actually pay, rather than be paid. And indeed we have heard noises from the Whitehall area on the subject of deriving revenue from government content dispensed via service providers. This is something we fear will appeal far more to Mr Tony than to the service providers. But as it is, with no money changing hands we have an arrangement that looks mutually beneficial, but that is potentially dangerous because it will build a relationship, and could easily provide greater entree for Microsoft into UK government services.

The arrangement also begins to clear the way for the implementation of Microsoft's Electronic Government Framework (EGF) strategy, which we covered here earlier this year. You'll find links to the full Microsoft documents there, but for brevity we'll repeat the section on the Microsoft Government Portal:

"The Government Portal is a non-exclusive business model that integrates both internal and external Web sites. Public (Yahoo, AOL, MSN) and special interest portals (like bCentral, Vertical Net) are eager to provide maximum services to their users and it is in government's interest to reach their citizens through as many service provider channels as possible. So to ensure a citizen-centric approach, rather than deal solely with one company, governments must publish the technical requirements for conducting government transactions. Then anybody who meets certain quality service levels should be allowed to provide a public service. Public service provider channels can be a government agency, but they can also be a bank, or a sports store that sells fishing licenses, or a public portal such as Microsoft's MSN and bCentral that support transactions for citizen and business services."

Note MSN and bCentral being presented as public services, which is of course what is happening now, in a small way, via the current pilot. The extension of the services need not necessarily lock the government into Microsoft's EGF, and actually other planned directions could provide a useful counterbalance to Microsoft here. For example, the E-Envoy's office is looking at the delivery of services via mobile phones and cable TV - these could use Microsoft technology, but many service providers would likely view alternatives, not least of them Sun, as more appropriate. Government, we think, needs to take Microsoft at its word and try to "reach their citizens through as many service provider channels as possible." Otherwise it will be (even more) vulnerable to the old bait and switch gag.

By the way, Alan tells us that they're not doing any snooping via the Messenger service (can't think why that popped into his head - we certainly didn't ask) and you can always remove the tab if you want. So that's all right then. ®

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