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British e-government: Not there yet

The U.K. government is still failing to provide citizens with useful and innovative online services, warns a top parliamentary committee.

The British government is still failing to take full advantage of the Internet by providing citizens with useful and innovative online services, according to an influential group of Members of Parliament.

The Public Accounts Committee said on Wednesday that government departments must do more than simply provide information on their Web sites. If e-government is to succeed, the committee warned in a new report, people must be able to benefit from online services that make their lives better and easier.

The government is committed to putting all its services online by the end of 2005, and it currently has 100 major information technology projects underway at a cost of ?10 billion (about $15 billion). The committee fears, though, that this money will be wasted if the public does not use online services.

"Most government services currently available online just provide basic information and advice. More rapid progress now needs to be made to enable people to carry out transactions with government such as applying for a driving license or claiming benefits," said Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, in a statement accompanying the report.

"There is also a need for better marketing strategies to encourage people to actually use what is available online," Leigh added.

There's little dispute that IT and the Internet can revolutionize the way that government supplies services to the public. In its report, "Improving Public Services Through e-Government," the committee noted with some concern that this potential is largely not yet being realized.

"Very few of the services that citizens routinely use can be fully accessed online," the committee said.

To make sure that they provide the right kind of e-services, departments have been advised to work closely with the groups of citizens they are targeting, to try to ensure that their online services are attractive and likely to be used.

Even if the government does make a success of using IT to deliver better public services there is also the danger that many people will not benefit, because of the failure to close the digital divide.

"Groups in society such as the elderly, unemployed, those on low incomes and those with learning difficulties may not have easy access to the Internet, with the risk that they are excluded from the benefits of e-government," the report said.

Even though some online services are available in banks, post offices and Citizens Advice Bureaux--a nonprofit volunteer organization that provides free advice on legal, consumer, financial and other matters, the public accounts committee wants market research to be conducted on the take-up of this option by the elderly and by those on low incomes.

"Improving Public Services Through e-Government" is the latest report to cast doubt on the British government's ability to embrace the Internet. The National Audit Office said back in April that the government is ignorant about the costs and benefits of putting public services online and is not doing enough to learn from the experiences of people who are using existing government Web sites.

ZDNet U.K.'s Graeme Wearden reported from London.