While this is embarrassing, it is hardly the end of the world. Britain is unusual in having set explicit targets for making all government services available electronically. What is far more worrying is that where such services have already been put online, hardly anyone seems to be using them (see chart). “Citizens have so far barely used the government's own online service offerings,” it notes glumly.
Worse, Mr Marsh says usage of e-government services has not grown in the past two years, and has even fallen in some cases. This is odd, because the British are generally rather keen on the internet. In November, online retail sales in Britain cleared £1 billion ($1.6 billion) for the first time, according to a survey by Forrester, a consultancy.
Online spending is growing 15 times faster than conventional retail spending (in part, no doubt, courtesy of worsening road congestion). So why won't Britons deal with the government online? One problem is the sheer proliferation of websites: more than 800 government bodies have spawned over 3,000 sites, according to the House of Commons public accounts committee. Many transactions require co-ordination between several organisations and visits to multiple sites.
A more logical approach would be to build websites around specific services—such as housing, transport and education—which could then provide a single point of access to several organisations. But that would mean overhauling procedures behind the scenes and getting those organisations to co-operate. The government's track record with previous large-scale computerisation projects, from the passport office to air-traffic control, is hardly inspiring. Merely applying a thin electronic veneer to the existing bureaucracy is easier, but much less useful. Another problem is that some government sites are out of date or do not work properly.
People will access government services online only if doing so is quicker, easier or cheaper than going through conventional channels. As anyone who has tried to use the Inland Revenue's website to calculate and submit their income tax return will testify, badly designed and bug-ridden sites are likely to make users nostalgic for the old-fashioned, paper-based approach. Improving design and fixing bugs would help; so might providing more financial incentives, such as the £10 rebate offered for sending in tax returns online.
But could there be a more fundamental reason for British apathy towards dealing with the government online? William Heath of Kable, an e-government consultancy, suggests that the underlying problem is “healthy British scepticism” towards the state. Given the hostility to, say, ID cards, it is not surprising if people are reluctant to type their credit-card details or other personal information into a government website.
The e-government targets are now being revised with a new emphasis on the uptake of services, rather than just their provision. But Mr Heath suggests that e-government will not take off in Britain “unless the state behaves in a way that earns our trust” through measures such as freedom-of-information legislation and a revamp of the Official Secrets Act. Until then, the British will stick to shopping.