e-Government beckons

A Page on the Web, published in the Solicitors Journal, June 2001

The Office of the e-Envoy (www.e-envoy.gov.uk) is leading the drive to get the UK online, to ensure that the country, its citizens and its businesses derive maximum benefit from the knowledge economy.

The Government’s programme to ensure that the UK is a world leader in the new knowledge economy is the UK Online Strategy. The Strategy, which was published as part of the e-Minister and e-Envoy’s first Annual Report in September 2000, sets out 94 recommendations for action across the e-agenda, grouped under 25 key priority areas. Priority area 11 is to ‘Get all Government Services online’ which includes the following five commitments.

Improve the customer front-end

‘Develop the UK Online portal to provide citizens with a single point of access to Government information and services available online.’

The UK Online portal (www.ukonline.gov.uk) was launched on 19 February 2001 as the principal entry point to online government information and services. Its aim is to organise content around the needs of the citizen, to make dealing with government as easy and seamless as possible. Building on recommendations in the Modernising Government White Paper, information is focused around ‘Life Episodes’, which are designed to enable the user to access all the information they need about a particular event without having to understand the workings of government or departmental delivery structures. There are currently eight Life Episodes: Moving home, Going away, Dealing with crime, Having a baby, Death and bereavement, Learning to drive, Looking for/getting a job and Looking after someone. Three more are due for release by the Autumn: Pensions and retirement, Starting/changing school and Moving on from school.

For example, selecting the life episode ‘Death and bereavement’ and sub-topic ‘Planning ahead’ one is offered checkboxes to select the jurisdiction (where the death has occurred!) and more specific sub-topics of interest. This search then produces annotated links to directly relevant government and other services. Under the head ‘Wills, legal issues and financial planning’ one finds:

  • Legal advice: find a solicitor in England or Wales – a link to the Law Society’s solicitors-online.com website.
  • Legal advice on wills and probate – a link to the Community Legal Service’s Just Ask! website.
  • How to trace a will – an e-mail link to the Northern Ireland Probate Registry.
  • A guide to wills – a link to the guideforlife.com website.

Alternatively the Quick find search facility can be used, eg to search for “wills death”.

The site does not impress, breaking many of the rules for good usability, with non-standard, disjointed and slow browsing, no Search box on the home page, and too much bright yellow! For starters will the average citizen find resonance in the term ‘life episodes’?

To date the e-Envoy reports 6.8 million page impressions – or 0.125 per citizen (since February).

The site is not yet of much direct relevance to the citizen as businessperson, though this should change soon: the open.gov.uk service will be hosted by ukonline.gov.uk from 1 July 2001.

Join up the back-office systems

‘Develop a Government Gateway to provide a single standard of security and authentication and to join up existing IT systems in Departments.’

The Government Gateway project (www.gateway.gov.uk) is designed to join up back office IT systems in Departments making it easier for citizens to connect with public services through single points of access such as the UK Online portal. This is intended to contribute to the drive to make services from across Government available in a consistent, direct and joined-up way.

The first three online Government services available through the Government Gateway are:

  • Electronic VAT Return (for VAT-registered businesses)
  • MAFF IACS Area Aid Application (for farmers, and agents who complete MAFF forms on behalf of farmers)
  • PAYE Internet Services (for employers and their agents)

You can enroll for and access these three services through the Government Gateway using a single account login. Further transactions and additional departments (including Devolved Administrations and Local Authorities) will be added later in 2001 and the list of services will grow until ‘almost all the paperwork that you currently send off to Government departments will be available online’.

The initial version of the Government Gateway enables forms to be sent one-way – to Government departments. Later in 2001 the facility to receive forms and statements electronically from Government departments is to be provided.

The lead developer for the Gateway is none other than our friend Bill Gates, sparking lively debate about whether our interests are best served by this appointment.

Other commitments

The other three commitments under the heading Getting Government Services online are:

  • Set standards: the e-government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) mandates the use of Internet, World Wide Web and XML standards across the public sector.
  • Improve the organisational capacity of Government to deliver electronic services: this has started with the production of initial departmental e-business strategies and formation of e-business units.
  • Champion private and voluntary sector involvement in the delivery of electronic government services: an e-government incubator has been established rapidly to fund and develop, jointly with the private and voluntary sectors, prototypes from the public, the private and the voluntary sectors.