Businesses shun UK eGovernment services
The eGov Monitor reported this week 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.