The UK Government has decided that it's time to educate the nation's Luddites by introducing UK Online, an initiative that will establish a network of free internet learning centres around the country. Now it's looking for an agency to sell the idea.
UK Online aims to make the move online meaningful by providing the public with easy ways to complete tasks such as tax returns and driving licences on a government portal. In theory, it's a good idea, and it gives the Government the benefit of being seen to make efforts to bridge the digital divide.
But it's an ambitious project and something that should already have happened. The debacle surrounding last year's passports backlog could have been avoided if renewal had been possible on the internet. 'We'd expect the Government to provide services and information online like any other grown-up initiative,' James Best, the executive chairman of BMP DDB, says.
Although the opportunity to complete tax returns and other tasks online does have appeal, the Government could face an uphill struggle in getting the public to use such services. Trading confidential information in cyberspace is a hard sell after recent scare stories about web security breaches.
The winning agency will face a daunting task. 'It will be a strategic challenge,' Marco Rimini, the director of strategy and development at J. Walter Thompson, says. 'It will need to help the Government simplify its long-term strategy for the initiative.'
The positioning for such a campaign is tricky. 'On the one hand the service will be talking to the converted who would expect the Government to market online, and on the other it will be trying to bridge the digital divide by telling the unconverted about these centres,' Rimini says.
Crispin Reed, the managing director of Springer & Jacoby, says: 'What will motivate people to familiarise themselves with the net is giving them the opportunity to access its practical applications, such as the driving licence.'
In theory, UK Online should be no different to a supermarket putting its offering online. But the magnitude of the task should not be underestimated, and the different inter-governmental offices will make amalgamation difficult.
'Making it work will be an interesting task,' Best admits. The debacle surrounding boo.com's inability to deliver the goods is a reminder that back-end technology problems can blight ambitious projects.
The Government is remaining tight-lipped about the initiative until its official launch, although a Cabinet spokesman confirmed that Patricia Hewitt, the minister for e-commerce, would have a 'key interest' in the project.
But whether non-internet users will ever feel comfortable using a computer for their tax returns is open to debate. 'People ignore the fact that most internet penetration is going to come through interactive TV,' Rimini says.
And that could mean that UK Online is obsolete before it even gets started.
This article was first published on Campaign