Committee of Public Accounts: Press Notice


Publication of the Committee's 16th Report, Session 2007-08

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The internet is transforming the way in which government communicates with and provides services to citizens. But the government's enthusiastic embrace of this new world of web-delivered services is not matched by a commensurate level of understanding of what it is achieving through its websites, how effective they are or whether they represent value for money.

"The time has long passed for getting a firm grip on the growth of government websites which has been almost uncontrolled. The streamlining of web services around the key websites and is a very welcome development. It is essential that the DWP, the department responsible for these sites, should arrange for regular independent reviews of how they are developing and the associated risks.

"Those gazing towards the sunlit digital uplands must not forget those among our citizens - including three-quarters of socially excluded people and a half of people on low incomes - who have no access to the internet or do not use it. They must not be left behind as the government's use of the internet gathers pace."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 16th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Cabinet Office and the Central Office of Information, examined the Government's progress in the management and oversight of government websites, the overall quality of sites and the drive to rationalise them.

For many millions of people the internet has become the preferred way of conducting many everyday transactions, from banking to booking a holiday. The internet is often faster, easier to use and more convenient, with services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has also become an important way of improving the delivery of public services. The government spends an estimated £208 million a year on delivering services and related information online, such as the renewal of vehicle excise duty, the filing of tax returns and for the matching of applicants to jobs.

In 2002, our predecessors concluded that there had been a lack of progress in implementing the recommendations from an earlier report. Five years on, a quarter of government organisations still cannot provide data on the cost of their websites. And, where data were provided, over 40% of organisations provided only estimates. Further, 16% of government organisations do not have a good knowledge about the users of their websites. Even where user data are being collected, they are not always being used to inform and improve websites.

Generally, the public consider government websites to be satisfactory, and some, such as the Transport for London website, are well regarded. Overall, however, the quality of government websites has improved only slightly since 2002, and a third of sites do not meet the Cabinet Office's own user accessibility standards.

The government has embarked on an ambitious strategy to move most citizen and business facing internet services and related information to two websites, and, by 2011. These sites are well regarded by the public and industry and both have received awards. The government also aims to rationalise websites by closing almost 1,000 unnecessary sites. Departments will continue to run their own, smaller websites containing policy and research information only.

For government, internet services are cheaper than traditional ways of delivering services and information. However, 75% of socially excluded people and 51% of people on low incomes do not use the internet. There is a risk that these groups, who are often major users of public services, will not benefit from the government's drive to expand the use of the internet.