Twenty years of e-Government

Many of the ambitions of twenty years ago still resonate today. Their realisation is still work in progress.

Jerry Fishenden has taken on the labour of recording the main trends of the history of e-government, or online government, or digital government (even the name has archaeological layers) in the UK over the last twenty years. So far, there are four thematic parts, with the possibility of more to come:

Part 1: Progress towards a single online presence

Part 2: “e-government” architectures

Part 3: Approaches to identity

Part 4: Approaches to social inclusion

There’s a fair bit in all that which I recognise from my own experience, but plenty more which is new to me, or reminding me of things half known and long forgotten. Of course there are other ways of telling the story, there always are (my far less systematic attempt, also prompted by Jerry’s work, was a ten year anniversary piece written five years ago), but this is a really clear account of the history and foundations of current digital government, with much of it more relevant to today’s challenges than you might expect.

Capturing the story this way highlights just how ephemeral it all is. Much of the material Jerry refers to is somewhere between hard and impossible to find online, and there seems little prospect of stable, long-term canonical references. Many of the links in my 2009 post are now broken, sometimes because archive sites I linked to have themselves been archived. Even that is oddly inconsistent: archive.cabinetoffice.gov.uk, redirects to the National Archives breaking specific links as it goes. But archive.official-documents.co.uk redirects first to a gov.uk landing page before linking to the National Archives, but despite that preserves the underlying link structure.

I am not going to attempt to review or provide a commentary on Jerry’s posts, but I do want to offer one small addition to the final part, on social inclusion. Jerry quite rightly makes the point that:

It’s clear that social inclusion has been a concern at least since the 1990s and the first attempts to move government services online. But this narrow association with purely technological aspects has at times diluted the focus on the underlying causes of social inclusion — notably the way public services are designed, operated and delivered across multiple channels.

But his account of what’s happened here is mainly about the very early years, essentially from 1996 to 2000, taking in the genuinely pioneering View from the Queue along the way. Stopping there, I think he misses a subtle but critical turn in the direction of e-government which happened a couple of years later. In the early days, the focus was very much on the availability of services: the core target was about putting services online. Success was counted in terms of what could be done, not whether anybody was actually doing it. In 2002, that changed, with the focus moving much more to the use of services. That was both a minor change in wording and a fundamental change of approach. If you want people to use an online service but they have a choice not to, you have to start doing user centred design. Of course that doesn’t guarantee social inclusion, nor yet the integrated multi-channel approach Jerry rightly advocates, but it is the turning point from online as technology to online as service – the consequences of which have been playing out ever since.