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Prepare for the online ministries

The Government will use '' know-how to set new targets for Net services. Chris Johnston reports

MINISTERS and Whitehall mandarins may not all be able to e-mail each other, but last week's "e-government" strategy proposals look set to change all that in the near future.

All parts of the public sector will face a shake-up as e-business methods are applied to get all government services online by 2005 - three years earlier than the previous target date.

Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office minister, said the tactics used by companies, which have to act swiftly to beat the competition, will be emulated to speed up the process.

One of the most important elements of the strategy is UK Online, to be launched in July. The Internet "portal" will make all central and local government electronic services accessible from one site.

Eventually, it will allow users to pay their television licence or register a change of address with all government agencies, and even e-mail them a reminder when payments become due.

Using technology to combat social exclusion is one of the e-government strategy's four guiding principles, but access to the Internet via computers is only one part of the overall picture.

Last month, the Prime Minister announced that he wants everyone to have access to the Internet by 2005, either via computer, interactive digital television, mobile phone or at a public access point in a library.

"Universal Internet access is vital if we are not only to avoid social divisions over the new economy but to create a knwledge economy of the future which is for everyone," Mr Blair said.

Interactive television is going to play a vital role in widening access to the Internet and electronic services. It also holds great potential for delivering education.

It is highly likely that the University for Industry will use interactive TV as well as the Internet in the next few years to conduct its "learndirect" programmes.

Open, the interactive TV service available on Sky Digital, has a range of education activities for pre-schoolers through to secondary students.

James Ackerman, its chief executive, said Open is helping government departments to use the potential of interactive television to make public services easily accessible to all, regardless of age, income or location.

"Open is working on ideas to support health-sector initiatives and bring new education services into the home," he said.

"We believe that they can add real value across all social groups nationwide."

Alex Allan, the Government's e-envoy, insists that lecturers should not think the growing digitisation of education is going to make them jobless.

Rather, he believes that online learning will complement rather than replace, face-to-face teaching.

It is likely, though, that lecturers' roles will begin to change. Many commentators believe that lecturers will need to spend more time helping students to become independent learners.

"e-government: a strategic framework for public services in the Information Age" is online at:

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