We are all making a big investment in putting our services online, but there is still a nagging doubt - will the public use these services? Figures from the Office of National Statistics are reassuring.
The Expenditure and food survey, previously the Family expenditure survey, shows that in the first quarter of this year, roughly 10.7 million homes in the UK had access to the internet, representing more than 42% of all households. This is more than three times the number three years earlier and is a 6% increase on that reported in the first quarter of 2001.
Home internet access now extends to an estimated 55% of adults in the UK, which adds up to more than 25 million people. We also know from the survey that over half of adults have accessed the internet at some time, but that this varies by age: nearly 90% of those aged 16 to 24 have accessed the internet, compared with just 12% of pensioners.
Of those who had purchased goods or services in the three months prior to interview, nearly 40% reported spending£100 or less. The main reasons given for this are security concerns or simply that people prefer to shop in person. It seems unlikely the respondents would describe the same strong preference for, say, visiting their local housing benefit office, if they were sure that online services could be effectively and securely delivered.
Director of e-government, IDeA
Learning from the dotcom experience
Like their dotcom counterparts before them, councils are spending a lot of time, effort and money on becoming dotgovs. As a result, electronic service delivery is becoming more and more of a reality.
To date, much of the e-government debate has focused on the 100% target for 2005 and best value performance indicator 157, which measures councils' progress towards this target.
While this has been useful to focus minds on the scale of the challenge, the debate needs to shift to new ground.
Three years ago when many companies began to integrate electronic working into their operations, business commentators noted it was no longer appropriate to talk about an e-business as distinct from an offline business.
Similarly, it will soon make no sense to talk about e-government as some separate activity and we will simply talk about government, which seamlessly incorporates electronic working with the traditional.
Accompanying this change of mindset there now needs to be a shift in focus away from simply making services available electronically towards the fundamental issue of how to encourage their take-up.
Many dotcom failures floundered because much of their initial work was predicated on the Field of Dreams - 'build it and they shall come' -syndrome. Indeed, it was the realisation that consumers need to be encouraged to use e-commerce that proved to be a major factor in the bursting of the dotcom bubble.
With the commitment of£350m of funds to support councils'
e-government plans, answers are needed to key questions such as: why should citizens use these services? Even more importantly, what can councils do to encourage take-up?
Encouragingly, the Society of IT Management recently published version four of its key performance indicators, which contains a prioritised list of services identified as being of greatest interest to the public.
Perhaps this will lead to a wider realisation that the acid test of e-government will be the difference it makes to the way citizens interact with their council.
Ultimately, dotgovs must be answerable to the backers who fund their work. Unlike dotcom investors, who had little leverage once the bubble started to burst, the general public will expect to see some return on its£350m plus investment in e-government.
Ensuring that return will require the development of effective strategies to encourage take-up and a shift in thinking - sooner rather than later.