Britain is experiencing an Internet boom—URLs decorate buses and taxis, and every other TV ad touts an e-service. Two e-ministers—Patricia Hewitt guides e-commerce and Ian McCartney drives e-government—and an “e-envoy” are attempting to achieve Tony Blair’s oft-stated goal to make the United Kingdom “the best place in the world for e-commerce.” How are they doing?
Access to the Internet: About 6.4 million British households are online—more than 27 percent of the population. This is tops in Europe, but it pales in comparison with the United States, where 50.5 million households—nearly half the population—have Internet access.
Access to electoral representatives: Of the 659 members of Parliament listed at the official House of Commons site, only 159 can be reached by e-mail, and just 63 have home pages. (By now all members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have Web sites and most provide e-mail links.)
Access to legislative information: Hansard, the official record of parliamentary debate, provides the full text of proceedings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords by 9 a.m. the following day. The Register of Members’ Interests, where MPs disclose gifts, hospitality, or income they have received, is available on the Web, though the online version hasn’t been updated since Jan. 31.
Government Web sites:
10 Downing Street is a slick, well-designed site that offers news on government initiatives, Tony Blair’s speeches (many with video), briefings by the prime minister’s spokesman, and an extensive children’s section.
The Labor government recently accelerated its timetable for putting all government services online, bringing the target date from 2008 to 2005. open.gov.uk aspires to be the public sector portal. It already aggregates resources from agriculture to Wales, but the site is unwieldy.
The Office of the e-Envoy is the clearest expression of the government’s strategy for global domination of e-commerce. Unfortunately, it’s also an outrageous example—or should that be “exemplar”?—of business-school-speak. The objectives of Alex Allan, the e-envoy, are to develop: “modern markets” to facilitate e-commerce, “confident people” with access to information and communication technologies, “information age government” that will make the United Kingdom a “global exemplar,” and “analysis and benchmarking” to “ensure that government and business decisions are informed by reliable and accurate e-commerce monitoring and analysis.” Beyond the gobbledygook, there are some worthy efforts to bring computer access to the poor, who are, after all, the people most in need of government services, and to standardize how agencies and departments use the Web.
Political and Election Web Sites:
The U.K. version of Yahoo! lists pages for all the major political parties—and then some. The sites for the “big three”—Labor, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat—offer a careful, rather bland, selection of policies, personalities, and appeals for support.
The May 4 local elections, and particularly the vote for the first directly elected London mayor, produced spicier fare. The leading contenders in London—renegade victor Ken Livingstone, who was expelled from the Labor Party when he mounted an independent campaign; official Labor candidate Frank Dobson; Conservative Steve Norris; Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer; and Green Party nominee Darren Johnson—all devoted a substantial portion of their sites to detailed policy statements on such key issues as transportation, policing, and education. Interestingly, all the major contestants displayed good Netizenship and linked to at least some of their competitors’ sites. (The Guardian reported that Dobson was the sole candidate to use banner ads. The banner—produced by U.S. company Aristotle Publishing—ran on the Web sites of London newspapers and radio stations. You can view it here.)
The BBC, Channel 4 News, the Guardian, and the London Evening Standard all created election portals of the sort we’re now familiar with in the United States (see this March “Net Election” for more on the stateside editions). British political junkies have also borrowed the popular presidential preference sites (see this December column). Fantasy Mayor, Vote-4-Mayor, and—my personal favorite—VoteMonkey allowed users to match their opinions with London mayoral candidates. At VoteMonkey, every choice makes the monkey move, so even if you don’t particularly care whether the mayor of London is an animal lover or an entrepreneur, the graphics alone justify stating an opinion.