Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 880 - 899)



  880. When the Permanent Secretary of the DSS was here, when we were doing an investigation into SERPS, one of the things she admitted to was a massive problem in terms of communication in her department, the IT communication between different benefits agencies just was not there. Is it your responsibility to look at these departments and say, "You're not addressing that issue", or do you rely on the departments themselves to admit they have got problems in terms of delivering what they have to do right across Government?
  (Ms Steward) The responsibility would rest with each individual department and agency and their senior management in that regard. We work very closely with them. We work with them through their information age government champion. We have a series of work groups that they would be invited to participate in, including areas, say, in connection with GSI and in work that they would do with any of our other major initiatives.

  881. One of the most interesting innovations Government had was to introduce information age champions, as you have just mentioned. Has there been any review of how that process has worked?
  (Ms Steward) I think the information age champion process is an ongoing review process in being able to identify the effectiveness of the way in which we can effectively communicate with them and have an inclusive role in work that we take forward. We internally, in the Office of the e-Envoy, also look to see just how effective we can be in supporting them as well, so collectively we will continue to review and see what changes may improve any of the operations.

  882. I know the Government has signed interesting initiatives with Singapore and with other governments. Could you tell us what that is about, and what the benefits to the UK are?
  (Ms Steward) These are memoranda of understanding that are established with other governments. It builds very much on what Geoff was talking about before, of being able to exchange information, experiences, work collaboratively with other governments, so that we can take advantage of their experiences to take added value as we try to translate any of our own initiatives, particularly in some of the areas like online services.

  883. I want to ask you some questions about three difficult areas that may provide challenges to the Government's target for e-Government. The first is the data protection issues of human rights. There was a seminar yesterday where the police were saying that the Data Protection Act issues, and particularly the European Directive, were causing problems in terms of sharing information across different government departments. Is that a problem that you would see? If so, do we need to amend the data protection regulations we have got in this country?
  (Ms Steward) Data protection is an important aspect of any of the work that we undertake across the Civil Service, and, particularly where we would use online services, departments and agencies must adhere to those regulations. I cannot speak on behalf of the Data Protection Commission, but again the PIU is actually taking forward a study currently on data protection, privacy and data sharing, and a much better understanding of what other opportunities there are available to us to be able to share data, for the end result of being able to provide improved services to our citizens.

  884. One of the most frustrating things that I find is having to give my name and address time and time and time again, not only to Government but to businesses. Would it not be simpler just to have an ID card like they do in other continental countries, which can provide the information once and save all these hassles people have in their daily lives? I have thousands of cards which I use for different things, so why not have one card?
  (Ms Steward) There are various ways in which we are looking at being able to make our services more readily available. We recently released a small pilot of a small system on change of address exactly for that, to make it easier for people to be able to notify information, either through commercial providers who are out there operating currently, or through the Post Office, so that information can be provided back into Government, and therefore for us actually to place that in our systems, so it reduces the amount of time that we need to come back and ask for the same information.

  885. The last area where I think there is a problem is the skills that we have in this country. My background is a systems analyst. The project management skills that we have got in this country are very poor. It is true in other countries as well that project management skills are not very high. Are you addressing that through national training programmes? How are you addressing it within the Civil Service in order to achieve some of the Government's targets that they have set?
  (Ms Steward) We are addressing that. We in fact identified the need to focus on those through the Government's review of successful IT projects through last year. There is work going through now with the Government's National Training Organisation, through other projects in the marketability of qualifications, through the Office of Government Commerce which is actually looking at that in depth as well. So there are particularly targeted areas, support from the centre for departments and agencies so that they can up-skill for their individual civil servants who are working in that area. I also note that it is, as you indicated, a problem even in industry. To that regard, the Government is working very closely with industry, through a senior IT forum, so that we can bring greater awareness and also skills sharing across the Government and private sector.

  886. Your responsibility is to both the DTI through Patricia Hewitt and to the Cabinet Office through Ian McCartney. Does that actually cause your section a problem?
  (Ms Steward) No, not at all. It is very clear for us. Patricia Hewitt is our e-Minister and takes leadership and direction at the political level for that. Ian McCartney is our Minister for e-Government which really focuses attention on what needs to be undertaken within Government in our departments and agencies. It works very effectively, and we have the Prime Minister at a very high level as well as our champion for this agenda.

  887. Has the loss of Alex Allan been a blow to your office?
  (Ms Steward) We of course were sorry to see Alex leaving, but we have Andrew Pinder as an interim e-envoy, and it is business as usual for us. We have got a large agenda, a lot of work, and we are moving forward.


  888. We are impressed by the confidence of the answer. Is there a shred of doubt in your mind that the delivery targets for the delivery of government services electronically by set dates are going to be delivered?
  (Ms Steward) No.

  889. Not a shred?
  (Ms Steward) I believe very firmly that the 40 per cent work to date is very good progress, and if you look at the United Kingdom's progress against other governments', we are standing very well. There is still a great deal of work that we need to undertake going forward and we continue to work very closely with the departments and agencies, and the Treasury in particular, to focus attention on that so the momentum is not lost, and we will be moving to transactions online, which is another major step forward, but 40 per cent is a very good rate of progress to date.

  Chairman: Could I ask you a completely unreconstructed question. I will not have an Internet banking account, despite the attractive rates of interest, because I do not trust it. That is an entirely lamentable but entirely human feeling.

  Mr White: It is safer than a Visa card.


  890. When the people's panel asked people about how they want services to be delivered to them, a large number of people said they wanted to talk to somebody, a lot of elderly people in particular said they wanted to be able to talk to somebody. I just had the sense that a world is being created out there where there may be a mismatch between what people who use services think they want in terms of how they connect with them and how people who know where the future is— is that an unfair question to ask you?
  (Ms Steward) No, I know what you are saying. In particular, the Government is not saying every service will only be made available online. There will continue to be front office services, one-on-one services, services over the telephone. Even in the people's panel work we have been clear in hearing the message from our citizens that they still like to use the telephone for communications and interaction. We also know that there is a very large number of people who like to use the Internet, like to use it in their own homes, or at other facilities where it is convenient at a time that is convenient to them, not just during the hours when the office may be open. So choice is a very important issue for us and for our citizens and we are working to ensure that that occurs. Again through our Citizen Portal we have Citizen Space, which is an area where we are asking for feedback from our citizens to understand in as much clarity as we can have in developing our services going back to them.

  891. If they need feedback and have said they would like to talk to a human being, that is something you will take account of?
  (Ms Steward) That is correct and that information is information that individual departments and agencies take account of in the way in which they prepare and package their services back to citizens as well.

Mr Lepper

  892. Could I pursue that a little further. Could you just explain for us how the Citizen Portal works?
  (Ms Steward) I am happy to. It is an online portal and the purpose is to give a single point of entry, some point where it is easy to be able to make contact with government, with easy navigation to information that is wrapped around a life episode. We currently have four of those presented—having a baby, moving house, dealing with crime and going away. And again that reflects what we have heard from our citizens as the type of information they find meaningful.


  893. Some people have all these altogether, joined-up.
  (Ms Steward) Indeed they do. The individual can come online from an Internet access point and get information that is presented in a way that is without bureaucratic speak, so that it is relevant to them. It is United Kingdom wide—it is not just England, it is Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and it is also localised so that if you are in Scotland you get information that is relevant to that particular area. Equally important, we have also translated the information into Welsh so we respect that particular language requirement.

Mr Lepper

  894. You were saying in answering the Chairman just now that there is space there also for feedback for people to state their preferences about how they want to receive information, among other things?
  (Ms Steward) That is correct. We have an area on the portal which is called "Citizen Space". We invite comment back in terms of how have they found their experience in dealing with government online through the Citizen Portal itself, and other views on what other services they may like as we go forward with this development.

  895. Being even more unreconstructed than the Chairman—I share his views about online banking, I have to say—but could you just tell us a bit more about what role you have, for instance, in monitoring exactly those issues about how people want to receive information because it seems to me there is something a bit circular about saying there is space within the Citizen Portal website to register that, in that the very people who will be giving their views are those who are already using the web anyway.
  (Ms Steward) That is correct in the sense that the people who are online are just one part of the community that are responding to it. Can I invite my colleague, Mr Bob Evans, who is the project manager for it, who will be able to give you a more detailed response.
  (Mr Evans) We recognise the point you make very much and we have been very concerned to make sure that we are getting feedback not just from those people using the site but those people not using the site and who want to get online. We have got three different channels for this. First, before we launched the portal we had a test programme by e-MORI with structured groups of typical users—pregnant women, regular travellers, people like that—to provide feedback on whether we got the content right, the look and the feel of the site right, and we got a reasonably positive response to that. We did some work offline, if you like, to see whether our design was right. As Ann has said, having gone live we have these channels for feedback, both comments on the site itself and also a discussion forum where people can make comments and suggestions about other things they would like to see. I have been quite pleased at the number of comments we have received through that channel and we are making use of that to re-design the site at the moment. Finally to get the offline feedback, again we have had e-MORI[1] running a series of structured group interviews with representative groups of citizens where they are given a demonstration of the site and they are asked their views on both the look and feel and the content of the site.

  (Mr Czerniawski) Could I set that in a slightly wider context. To pick up the point you were making earlier, E-Government is not just about the presentation of services online by the UK online portal or any other means. For those people who, for whatever reason, choose not to access the Internet, who do not trust online banking, whatever it may be, e-Government initiatives will improve the internal efficiency of government. In some ways that is the biggest challenge and opportunity we have for improving services. Precisely as people make contact over the counter or make contact by telephone, the people they deal with will have much better information available and much better transactions to support. The advantages of e-Government go well beyond immediate users of online services and, reflecting that, we are very much tying in that wider e-Government agenda with the development of PSAs and SDAs so that what government departments do is what we are interested in making more widely available and improving internal efficiency. Departments within that wider PSA process are required to take account of research on broader citizens' interests and what services they want improved.

Mr White

  896. What is SDA?
  (Mr Evans) Public Service Agreements and Service Delivery Agreements.

Mr Lepper

  897. Can I go a little further on this question of people. I take the point you make about there being two parts to this process; the public receiving information, communicating online but also things happening in the back office, making the service more efficient, irrespective of how people are accessing that service. What proportion of the population at the moment have access to Internet?
  (Ms Steward) The latest ONS figures have shown that 32 per cent of the United Kingdom population have access to the Internet, and I think it is growing steadily. That has increased from the mid-20s prior to December.

  898. Is there any information about the proportions of people who access Internet in their own homes as opposed to some other outlet?
  (Ms Steward) Yes. I would have to try and refresh my mind on this. I do not have the figures, but I am happy to provide them to you. It is a higher proportion than just several months ago, but I am happy to provide a note to you.[2]

  899. I was just thinking of something like NHS Direct, for instance. I am not sure whether it is currently available in access points like post offices and whatever, but that is the intention, is it not?
  (Mr Czerniawski) It is available wherever the Internet is available so public access points in libraries or for citizens' advice work.

1   Note by witness: the second reference to e-MORI is incorrect; the company actually used for this exercise is called Consensus. Back

2   Note: the information requested is available from National Statistics ( An issue dated 19 December 2000 was supplied by the witness. It states that in the third quarter of 2000, 32 per cent of all UK households could access the Internet from home. The average for the twelve months October 1999 to September 2000 was 26 per cent. Individual access to the Internet is given as 45 per cent of all adults (at some time; 80 per cent of these individuals having done so in the previous month). Back

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