2.3 Styles of presentation
One commodity that is dispensed in vast amounts both by central and local government is information, and so this is one of the more obvious candidates for electronic delivery. Online government services are typically approached via a portal site, which is a kind of entry site from which other sites can be reached. The websites of large organisations, such as Microsoft, the BBC and the Open University, are usually portals.
Going into a portal site is a bit like going into a large office building via the main door. Once inside, you have access to all the offices and departments inside the building, which are usually listed on a notice board. Similarly, portals list what is available, but in the form of a set of links. However, portal sites often have links to the sites of other organisations, as well as internal links to departments in the host institution.
An e-government portal site that only offered the user information would be a poor resource. The intention behind e-government is that sites should be transactional, that is, the user should be able to conduct a number of transactions at the site. Transactions involve such activities as paying, applying (for example, for a parking permit), consulting and booking. Transactions depend on the two-way flow of information between the user and the site. Transactional sites of any sophistication make extensive use of databases behind the scenes to hold data of many kinds. In fact, you can think of the site itself as an interface between the user and the many large databases that are needed to underpin the services offered.
In many e-government projects, online services are intended to become more personalised. Typically this involves either providing the user with a personal area on a portal, or providing something like a 'personal portal'. In a personalised online service, the site appears to 'know' relevant information about the user. For example, where he or she lives, the schools attended by members of the user's family, the status of tax payments, etc. This kind of service is intended to be convenient to the user. All the same, it can be disquieting to log onto a website and to find that the system apparently knows a great deal about you. You may have had similar feelings with book-selling websites that know all about your recent purchases and suggest more for you to make.
A personalised portal, just like a transactional one, is underpinned by databases. Personalised portals should also allow the user to make transactions, which are similarly underpinned by databases. Thus, databases turn out to be a crucially important part of the substructure of an e-government system, as they are of many online systems. You will already be familiar with the essential idea of a database, but large-scale information systems such as e-government use more sophisticated databases. I shall discuss these in the next section.
Activity 6 (exploratory)
Find the official website of a local government authority in the UK. (If you live in the UK, you can use your own local authority or another.) A simple way to find a suitable website is to use the search terms 'council tax' (use double quotation marks) and the name of a town in a search engine. Not all the links produced will be to a local government website, but you should find one that is. Having found a suitable site, go to its home page and spend about five minutes exploring the facilities on offer. The purpose of this activity is just to familiarise yourself with some of the features of an e-government site.
Different local authorities have different sites, so I cannot give an overall comment. You probably found, though, that there was a certain amount of local authority information available, together with facilities for some transactions.
Towards the end of this free course you will look at an e-government site in a more systematic way than you have done in this activity.