When Michael Cross moved house recently, he decided to put e-government services to the test. Unfortunately, he hit some snags along the way.
Last week, the Cross household moved, a few miles across north London. What we lacked in geographical ambition we tried to make up with technology. This was to be an e-move: every possible step would be carried out on the Web.
The results of this intensive test of online public services were mixed. With a few exceptions, government agencies still offer little online help. Many screen buttons labelled "Moving home?" clicked through to nothing more than instructions to fill out a paper form.
It all started so well. When we fell in love with the new flat, our first step was to check the place was for real. For a fee of £4, we were able to download a copy of the register of title and a plan from Land Register Online at www.landregistry.gov.uk. Another new government Website, Transport Direct (www.transportdirect.info) helped us check the transport links to work and school.
We also needed planning permission. General rules were available at the Planning Portal (www.planningdirect.info), which also listed our new local authority, the London borough of Haringey, among those accepting applications online. Haringey's own Website advertised an online planning service, but this seemed to be still under development. In the end, we submitted our planning application on paper.
Likewise, the process of buying the flat involved no cutting edge technology but a great deal of phone-bashing and signing of paper documents. Roll on e-conveyancing.
Paper contracts exchanged, we set about telling the world our new address. According to Transport Direct, we were moving 4.1 miles. As far as officialdom was concerned, it might as well have been 400.
We needed a one-stop change of address service. As e-government cognoscenti, we turned first to central government's new one-stop Web shop, Directgov (www.direct.gov.uk), expecting to find a heading marked "moving" or "change of address". There wasn't one. However, under "home and community" there was a link called "home buying and selling" (so much for e-government users in rented accommodation).
This led to "moving home" and the advice "there is so much to organise in just packing for the move that often important things are understandably overlooked". It provided a checklist and an external link to the commercial change of address service "I am moving". Another external link took us to the post office mail redirection service, where it was possible to download a form.
I wasn't ready to give up with government, so I used Directgov's "find your local council" button to get to the Website of my old borough, Islington. Government targets require all councils to provide a one-stop change-of-address service. No such service was available on Islington's feature-packed site. Haringey's slightly ropier-looking site also had no obvious place where new arrivals could report their presence.
Like perhaps 99% of citizens, I decided that if the council wanted our tax, it could track us down in its own time. A few central government tasks seemed more urgent. Another external link took me to the driving licence change-of-address service. In the true spirit of electronic government it told me "you must now complete a D1 application form (previously D750) available from most post office branches" and post it to Swansea.
Inland Revenue's Website, one of the best consumer-facing services run by central government, has a button: "change of circumstances". Again, this led to the disappointing: "If you move, let your tax office know as soon as possible."
By contrast, the TV Licensing agency www.tvlicensing.co.uk claimed to change our address online. All we needed was the existing licence number. Presumably, officialdom has worked out there is not much scope for fraud in electronically appropriating a TV licence.
The NHS doesn't even pretend to offer a change-of-address service. But a postcode search at the NHS Gateway www.nhs.uk revealed the five nearest pharmacists, dentists, opticians and GPs.
In the hope of dealing with the rest of the world in one go, we then turned to www.iammoving.com, a free change-of-address Website paid for mainly by the Royal Mail and utility companies. Registering was no problem: all it needed was an old and new address, a moving date and a password. But then the slog began: the site provides page after page of organisations with boxes checked "start" and "stop". Only a minority led to electronic notifications, the rest just to a pro-forma letter that needs to be printed out, signed and posted. By then, the printer had been packed.
Luckily, National Savings Premium Bonds accepts electronic notifications from the service: all I needed was my account number. Reassuringly, a security check Email arrived a few seconds later.
The overall verdict? With six months to go before government services are supposed to be available online, electronic officialdom is still not coping with the everyday business of moving house. The reasons are those that bedevil so much of e-government - lack of coordination between agencies and the difficulty of establishing citizens' identities online. Perhaps the identity card will help. After last week's experience, we are not planning to move again until well after the date it may come into use.
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