UK | Official electronic snooping?

19 03 2010

Imagine being given your own State-sponsored personal webpage.  Sure it’d be great not to waste so much paper, ink and transport, even better that the State Sector would shrink, but underneath it all, something sure does smell.

Government webpage for every citizen in the race to create a paperless society

Rachel Sylvester, Alice Thomson and Jill Sherman.  The Times, March 20, 2010

All public services could be delivered online within four years under an ambitious pledge by Gordon Brown to create a paperless state and save billions of pounds, The Times has learnt.

Tens of thousands of public sector jobs could go in Jobcentres, benefit offices, passport centres and town halls if face-to-face transactions are scrapped in favour of cheaper and more efficient online form-filling.

On Monday the Prime Minister will announce plans that he claims could save billions of pounds over four years by making dealing with the State as easy as internet banking or shopping on Amazon. Cash will also be saved on postage stamps, telephone calls and government buildings as the switch to the internet leads to the phasing out of call centres and benefit offices.

The aim is that within a year, everybody in the country should have a personalised website through which they would be able to find out about local services and do business with the Government. A unique identifier will allow citizens to apply for a place for their child at school, book a doctor’s appointment, claim benefits, get a new passport, pay council tax or register a car from their computer at home.

Over the next three years, the secure site will be expanded to allow people to interact with their children’s teachers or ask medical advice from their doctor through a government version of Facebook. But union leaders and privacy experts immediately warned that the Government’s record on IT projects was already catastrophic and there would be key concerns about privacy, data protection and fraud. In addition many elderly, disabled and undereducated people find it difficult to carry out transactions online.

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the FDA, which represents senior civil servants, said there were some good online services, but there were huge potential difficulties. “You cannot underestimate a whole range of risk factors including upfront costs, data protection, identity theft and social exclusion, with many people already irritated by online transactions,” he said. “Roughly £12 billion of taxpayers’ money has also just been wasted on the NHS IT project and there has been a long history of government computer problems.

In an interview with The Times, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, who has been advising the Prime Minister on the digital revolution, said it was time for Whitehall to catch up with the rest of the world.

I don’t want to go to a government office to do a government thing. It should all be online,” he said. “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. There will come a point where you don’t need all the physical offices any more.

Government sources say Jobcentres, tax offices, DVLA local centres, passport offices and housing benefit offices will be phased out over the next decade, to be replaced by a single “digital gateway” office, where people who are uncomfortable with computers can go for advice on applying for services online.

The private sector is likely to get involved — one idea is to allow people to buy their car tax disc on Amazon or from their insurance companies. Martha Lane Fox, the dot-com entrepreneur, is also helping No 10 with the implementation of the programme.

A report by the accountant PriceWaterhouse Coopers for the Cabinet Office estimated that the Government could save £900 million a year simply by bringing those who don’t have access to the internet online – the total savings would be far bigger if those with computers could access all services online. Carrying out a telephone transaction online can save £3.30 and doing a paper and mail transaction online can save £12 each time, according to the Cabinet Office.

Mr Brown will argue that using text messages to remind people of GP appointments could reduce the £600 million annual cost of missed NHS appointments.

Although some transactions, such as filling in a self-assessment tax return can now be done online it was still too complicated, said a Downing Street source. It should be “much easier, like buying a holiday. Dealing with a Jobcentre should be like online banking. This makes public services more responsible and has huge economic benefits.”

The Department for Work and Pensions is currently redesigning the benefit payments system so that everything can be done via computer. There are also plans to issue free mobile phone applications to allow people to deal with the State. One already tells unemployed people what vacancies are available in their area.

In addition, Sir Tim is managing a project to put government data online. So far 3,000 sets of previously secret data on everything from crime to pregnancy have been made public.

One Shadow Cabinet member said that the Tories supported the plans to get government online. They have already been talking to Ms Lane Fox and Sir Tim about carrying on if they win power.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: Over the last three to four years over 100,000 civil service jobs have gone with a serious impact in key areas such as tax and job centres where they have had to re-employ people in the recession due to the upsurge in unemployment. Cutting public services is not only bad for the public who use services but also the economy as we are pushing people who provide valuable services on the dole.

A tiny mention of those without computers.  A little mention of the security risks involved.  Yet absolutely no mention of the fact that tracking your thoughts and actions will simply be a case of inputting your unique ‘number’, and viola, every click and every email now available to HM Govt.

If I trusted my Government, I wouldn’t have had a second thought regarding this scheme.  But I don’t so I do.

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