Businesses shun UK eGovernment services

The eGov Monitor reported this week (External link) that recent figures published by the European Union show UK businesses lagging behind their continental counterparts in the take-up online government services. The Monitor makes no effort to explain this position, where the UK has one of the highest ratings for availability and sophistication of online services for business, but the lowest consumption of those services by businesses in the EU. Only 36% of UK businesses polled had used the internet to obtain information from public authorities, compared to 94% in Sweden and 90% in Finland.

It's hard to infer very much in the way of solid conclusions from the figures alone. My first instinct is that the apparent lack of any co-ordinated development strategy for central government web sites and services is a significant factor in the UK's poor showing. The lack of consistency between the multitude of ministry and departmental sites must be a barrier to uptake - which business wants to spend time navigating through perhaps 3 or 4 websites with different schemes of navigation, separate registration processes for users, and different levels of service provision, when they can rely on paper forms, the telephone and the venerable Royal Mail?

As an example, the HM Revenue & Customs provide a good range of online services, including PAYE for employers and the well-exposed self-assessment for income tax. Both require separate registrations, and those registrations are only valid at the HM R&C site. If I need to register my business with the Health and Safety Executive at the same time, I need to visit another site, with a different design, layout and navigation system, and download a form to print and send by mail, since there's no online service available. It's not a pleasant prospect.

My wife and I have got a small business (a smallholding) and since we sell food we're VAT registered. I'm also a web professional. So why aren't I using the eVAT service? Because it's just too much trouble. We're sent a paper form every quarter with a prepaid return envelope, and we fill it in and bung it in the mail. It's convenient and it works for us, as I'm sure it does for many, many other business. And this illustrates the crux of any successful online service - there has to be a tangible benefit to the user, and where businesses are concerned that means a financial benefit.

There will be other factors of course - mistrust or fear of online services (what if my information is lost?); mistrust of government in general (what will they do with my information?); lack of communication of potential benefits (what's in it for me?); entrenched business practices (we've always done it this way and it's never let us down). But for me the priority for the government is the pursuit of some uniformity in their online offerings, and perhaps even a brand. Just not Directgov.

Comments

I work in computer science research in the field of knowledge engineering, and we often have projects running with some part of the government, attempting to sort out the deluge of data that no-one has decent access to.

For example, we're currently trying to get a project going with OPSI, and maybe something with OS, although they do already have their own knowledge engineer on the job. Essex County Council are one of the only local councils who have thought about integration of their various departments, and are actually using the latest semantic web technologies. I think a few other county councils have dabbled in projects, but I don't think they're actually using any sort of data mediators.

I think there needs to be something from higher up in the ranks to start the integration of all these systems, after all, they are still one single government. There is a government task force that has come up with a defined nomenclature for government stuff, and published it as an ontology in RDF, which would be a start... but so little publisised is it after 15 minutes searching, I can't find it! Tsch.

Things like being able to log into various websites could already be solved with technologies such as OpenID, but I suspect open source scares most governmental non-techy people.

Posted by: Dave at October 28, 2005 10:55 PM

"There is a government task force that has come up with a defined nomenclature for government stuff..."

Do you mean the IPSV, son of the GCL and LGCL? This is a good piece of work in my opinion, although its coverage of Scottish terms is sketchy at best. It's also a good illustration of the lack of any coherent strategy for the integration you mention:

As part of the eGMS local authorities are mandated by central government to include a term from the vocabulary in the metadata for every page on their websites. The intention is to create a portal, costing £2.75m, known as Local Directgov (shouldn't that be Direct Localgov really?) where users will be able to search for IPSV terms and see coverage across local government. Apart from begging the question why anyone would visit a central portal when they could just visit their local council site, it is also totally dependent on the sensible, consistent application of the IPSV. Take a peek at the metadata on many council sites and you'll see that this just isn't happening. There's widespread use of either just top-level terms across a site, or even just a single term on every page, most commonly 'Local Government'.

The authorities (all English AFAIK) participating in the pilot Local Directgov project are required to submit 74 URLs for particular service areas by the end of December, for inclusion in the pilot portal. Whilst there is an XML schema in development for the submission of these URLs, authorities can submit them in a spreadsheet. If a URL changes the local authority will need to manually submit a new URL to the project. The mind boggles. I'm just glad we're not (yet) subject to this daftness in Scotland.

Posted by: Dan at October 28, 2005 11:46 PM

Ahhh, IPSV, that was it. Thanks for getting my closure on that. I certainly think it's a good piece of work too (amazing that it's actually using the latest web technologies too), but without some sort of better planning its use will become haphazard and all but useless. Well, I suppose it's a step in the right direction, but I can't imagine how many people there are working in government that probably haven't even heard of it!

Posted by: Dave at October 30, 2005 8:55 PM

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