Moving ahead

6 Jun 2007

The deployment and use of technology in government is undergoing a bit of a re-think these days, as the initial drive for e-government – a momentum that got us all working feverishly to get everything online – is maturing and the online services are more or less taken for granted.

The emphasis is now shifting towards maximising the impact of technology in increasing internal productivity, creating greater responsiveness, controlling risk and increasing confidence in the converging technologies that are becoming more and more significant as essential business assets.

Added to this, you have an emerging trend towards ‘mobile government’ – using mobile phones and text messages – that is set to challenge some of the big successes we saw with online government as the potential for simplification is exploited at a more modest cost.

The almost universal availability of mobile phones and the ever-improving features of these devices are opening up new opportunities for a more simplified and instantaneous form of service delivery that bypasses the online era. ‘Online’ has tended to mean sitting at a desk and slogging your way through a multitude of websites or web pages.

Admittedly, PDAs and smart phones have redefined that somewhat and internet access on the move is not a problem for those who can afford the luxury of either device. This is where the more modest and humble mobile scores better in that more people have them and communication by text messaging has spawned a whole new interactive experience that forces application simplification.

With over 100pc penetration in the mobile sector, it’s a fair bet that almost everyone you might want to get to will be reachable. So you have a device that can store information, allow real dialogue, display text and graphics, compute, act as a smart card and can be carried anywhere.

I was talking to someone from the Indian government recently and he was reflecting on the fact that in the US, where the cost of a PC is a much smaller proportion of the average person’s annual income than what it is in India, many American cities are implementing the 311 service. This is a contact centre service where people can talk to real human beings, can get to find out about the services that they need and can be put in touch with the owner of that service and even have a conversation with them.

What made him pause to reflect was that the Indian authorities have been concentrating on community online access centres for villages and towns where the challenge of individual ownership is too much for many people because of the costs involved. And in that respect India is not much different to many other countries stuck in the online rut.

The other nice thing about using mobile phones to deliver services is in the challenge to simplify the service experience to make it universally usable for all owners of mobiles phones. We already see some very neat solutions coming out of niche areas of public service activity and we can expect the momentum to pick up. Simple services like information feeds are becoming quite common.

How’s the form?

What I think the mobile does or can do is to cause us to rethink the whole ‘forms-based’ approach to bureaucracy because the way we collect, collate, store and use information and data can be totally transformed. You would almost go so far as to think that some organisations are there just to keep their forms in existence. It would be interesting to see if you could describe organisations around its forms. They seem to develop their own personalities or personas too.

A friend of mine tells me that he was recently dealing with someone in a tax office (or maybe he was being dealt with – and I won’t say in which jurisdiction). He had suggested that some information about his earnings that they were asking him for had already been supplied when they got his P60 form from his employer. However, there was an ‘oops’ moment when he was very quickly challenged on this assertion because tax authorities don’t get the P60. The employee gets the P60.

The tax people get a P35 that, as far as he can see, contains the same or similar information about his earnings. So the basic difference seems to be in the form number. The fundamental point for him was that he was being asked to provide information that they already had on file somewhere, yet the big issue for the tax official seemed to revolve around the fact that he had mentioned the wrong form name.

This, I think, illustrates the primacy of forms. It doesn’t seem to be possible for some organisations to migrate information outside the remit of the form on which it was originally stored. And, while I can see that there may be some data protection issues around exposing forms to other organisations, you’d imagine that it would be very acceptable (if not pragmatic) for multiple forms about the same individual to be compared within the same organisation. In the electronic world, it would even be possible to conceal certain parts of the information from those who do not need to get access to it.

With all of the facilities that are now available on portable devices like mobile phones, perhaps it is time to fundamentally re-think forms. Is it really necessary for people to continue to have to give the same information over and over again (with the added inconvenience for the service supplier of having to continually verify basic stuff like the address)? If a mobile phone has a unique identifier that can be associated with an individual, would it be possible to eliminate a lot of form filling and let the information be stored once and reused?

By Colm Butler