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UK political parties promise to spread tech

Labour and Tories go for headlines while Liberals immerse in details

The three major UK political parties have unveiled their strategies for improving e-government services, getting more people online, addressing the "digital divide" and improving the management of government IT projects.

But as they gear up for the general election, a new Accenture study shows the UK to be stalled in the middle ranks of e-government effectiveness.

Labour's IT strategy, presented on Friday, focusses largely on the digital divide and presents strategies for getting the disadvantaged online. The Conservatives meanwhile have focussed on improving the management of government IT projects by giving senior ministers more accountability.

The Liberal Democrats, rather than focussing on a single headline issue, presented a range of specific proposals such as subsidising broadband rollout in some areas, preventing the extension of software patenting, promoting the government adoption of open source and open standards and addressing IT skills shortages.

The party would improve government IT contracting by breaking monumental projects into smaller modules and would scrap Labour's broad e-government targets in favour of quality indicators.

Labour's plans include giving all students the opportunity to get online through national laptop and home PC leasing scheme, building on the network of UK Online centres and other community access points, and asking Ofcom to change its regulatory strategy to take into account broadband take-up, particularly in poorer households.

Labour would improve e-government services with the creation of a "digital challenge" prize awarded to a local authority and its partners to give universal online access to local public services. The prize would give a local government funds to create a sort of showcase for service delivery.

The party announced on Friday it is establishing a multi-agency national internet safety centre to combat the targeting of children online, and said it will work with the banking industry to improve online authentication.

The Conservatives' proposals centre on improving the way large government IT projects are managed, a problem they see as one of authority. A senior minister would be given the ultimate authority and responsibility for all government IT projects, the party says. The party would scrap the current "heavily centralised" Health Service National Programme for IT in favour of a plan to encourage local innovation.

The party would "reappraise" the way e-government programs are handled with the aim of providing reliable one-stop shop access to joined-up government services at the national and local level, but hasn't committed to specific changes. The Conservatives believe that the management of databases containing personal information needs to be made more efficient and accountable, and should be under the control of citizens rather than the state.

The Liberal Democrats' aim is to use IT to create the conditions for "a more liberal world in which people are able to overcome traditional boundaries", and have suggested more varied and specific proposals than those of the other two parties.

The party believes broadband rollout should be subsidised in some areas where a commercial rollout would be unfeasible, but where connectivity would improve an area's economic potential. The party would promote the development and takeup of IT qualifications, develop policies on domestic IT training needs and overseas skills recruitment, and would review IR35 to allow contractors to charge "reasonable and legitimate" expenses against their pre-tax income.

Some of the party's suggestions seem intended to appeal to the software developer community, including opposition to the extension of software patenting laws supported by the current government. The party would support the use of open standards and open-source software to reduce government's dependence on proprietary systems. They also support the creation of a "copyright law for the digital age" supporting artists while opposing "unnecessary restrictions" on legitimate purchasers of work. Current laws have tended to attach more penalties to copying and have supported copy protection technologies.

The LibDems would improve government IT contracting by breaking huge projects down into smaller modules which could be handled by smaller, more specialised contractors, a move intended to increase competition and quality of contractors. The party would favor putting fewer, better quality services online over Labour's strategy of getting all government services online by this year.

But while the political leaders outline their plans to improve e-government, Accenture's annual e-government survey published this week has ranked the UK 10th amongst national governments around the world - down from 6th in 2002 and 8th in 2003.

The "maturity" of UK e-government services fell from 9th to 12th. Canada ranked first for the fifth year in a row, with the US second, and Denmark and Singapore tied for third.

More than 90 percent of UK central and local government services are online, but most merely provide information rather than allowing transactions, Accenture said. Only four in 10 citizens had ever accessed an e-government site and 11 percent did so regularly; most still relied on the telephone.

The government's efforts to better integrate e-government into offline services means there could be "improved effectiveness in the near future", the study found.


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