The UK’s Massive eGov Portal Plan: The UK’s Digital Big Dig?

RISK_250Today, Prime Minister Gordon Brown will announce a massive IT project to move in-person transactions with citizens online.  (See coverage in the Telegraph.) This will change a wide range of interactions, including tax disputes and payments, vehicle licensing, applying for school, public housing issues, and passport applications.

No less than  Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web’s inventor, has been a driver for the undertaking.

”I don’t want to go to a government office to do a government thing. It should all be online. That saves time for people and it saves money for the Government – the processing of a piece of paper and mailing it back costs many times more than it costs to process something electronically.”

Run away. Quickly
As a veteran e-government strategist, I’ve walked parts of this path, and this project is almost certain to underperform the idealistic goals being set out for it.

  1. In the first year, every Briton will be issued a unique identifier allowing them to interact with all state agencies.  I happened to run the “unique identifier” project which issued six million identifiers to each student in a large eastern state.  I have no doubt that the UK already has other unique identifiers to base this on, but the human training needed to implement this across millions of citizens is daunting, as is the potential for fraud.
  2. Within three years, the Times reported, the secure site would include a Facebook-style interactive service allowing people to ask medical advice of their doctor or consult their childrens’ teachers. Again, I managed an educational portal project that extended such functionalities, and I was part of a state portal project that brought 70 agencies under one system. Both took more than three years, and faced significant difficulties (most of which were cultural and political, not technical).
  3. In ten years the nation would see closure of the physical centers dealing with most citizen affairs, as services would be offered through a single digital ”gateway.”  Any return that is ten years removed is beyond the political life of those involved with project. But so boldly planning to close large categories of offices immediately solidifies a resistance group.

Machiavelli on project management
The current state is easy to defend, as its benefits and constituents are present and well-rooted. Future benefits often lack real constituents who are aware and ready to engage in combat in the present for a future that is currently conjecture and hope.

Considering the negative politics, resistant culture, and rather ambitious goals inspired by a brilliant engineer and academic, the project is replete with “expectation risk.”

And so begins what I fear may be the UK’s digital Big Dig.

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