Despite significant spending on e-government, the UK is continuing to fall behind other countries in delivering usable electronic government services, dropping to ninth place this year, according to a new study from Accenture.

The consulting firm's annual e-government survey said the UK seems to have focussed on getting as many government services online as possible, without paying sufficient attention to whether they are actually services people want. Britain has dropped from sixth to ninth in Accenture's survey since 2002. "The United Kingdom’s online future is still unclear," the report said. "It reached the peak of its growth several years ago and has slowed down since then while other countries continued to grow."

The report evaluates each country's services on "maturity", which measures how many services are online, as well as how the services are delivered. As last year, Canada topped the list with 80 percent maturity, widening the gap with the United States and Singapore, which shared the No. 2 slot with 67 percent each. The UK and the Netherlands both had 55 percent ratings - just behind France, which pulled ahead to 57 percent - and South Africa was last with 18 percent. The study has been carried out every year since 2000, and is based on a survey of 5,000 regular Internet users in 12 countries in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as a quantitative assessment of 22 additional countries.

The UK has plenty of demand for e-government services, with four out of ten saying they would prefer electronic interactions with the government, but usage is low compared with other countries: 37 percent said they had never visited a government site, though this is down from 65 percent since last year.

The study noted that the UK has been spending plenty on e-government, citing the establishment of the office of the e-Envoy and the strong takeup of broadband as examples. The problem seems to be that the government isn't focussing enough on what businesses and citizens actually want, in contrast to successes such as Canada, the report said. The UK has come "under scrutiny for its emphasis on getting as many services online as possible without clearly demonstrating the value of doing so," the report said.

In contrast, Canada's secret sauce appears to be simply paying close attention to what services users want and how they use them, including a programme of regularly surveying businesses and citizens on their attitudes - the largest in Accenture's survey. From 2002 to 2003, more than 10,000 Canadians participated in e-government surveys and focus groups conducted by the government, including online surveys, usability interviews, focus groups and one-on-one interviews.

The government also regularly analyses its progress with a set of performance-management tools, Accenture said. These methods helped a pilot wireless information service to gain 900 percent in usage from 2002 to 2003, the company said.

France's leapfrogging the UK is significant, Accenture said, showing the success of a well-planned buildout of services defined by measurable objectives. "France has not done anything dramatic to improve; rather it spent several years putting its eGovernment foundations in place and identifying clear priorities. It then moved forward slowly and steadily," Accenture said.

While the UK progressed little in the past year, there are signs that this could change in the coming 12 months, the report found, citing an overhaul of the e-Envoy's role and the introduction of a more results-oriented framework for services this year, among other factors. The current e-Envoy's duties are to be handed over to a newly-created office, "Head of eGovernment", which will be analogous to a CIO's role, the government has said.

The UK government in April 2003 overhauled the Government Gateway to allow end-to-end electronic transactions between agencies as well as with users. The UK is also more advanced than many others in the use of marketing, Accenture said - while this has so far been applied to getting users online, it could bode well for e-government marketing efforts. Another promising sign: as general Internet usage increased, so did user satisfaction with e-government performance, jumping from 48 percent last year to 65 percent this year, Accenture said.

"Upcoming changes... should make the United Kingdom one of the most interesting eGovernment programs to watch over the next 12 months," the report said.