Genealogy and e-government have long had an unfortunate relationship with each other in the UK. The great triumph of putting the 1901 census online in January 2002 was followed within three hours by demand overwhelming capacity and within five days by its being withdrawn altogether for a bit of a rethink – a pause which in the event ran until the following November. Or as the NAO put it a couple of years later:
The service was designed to provide access to 1 million users, with a peak of 1.2 million users, in a 24 hour period. However, by midday on 2 January 2002, 1.2 million users per hour were attempting to access the site from locations across the world. Between 2 and 6 January 2002, the site continued to experience 1.2 million users per hour, overwhelming the site. On 7 January 2002, the Public Record Office and its contractor, QinetiQ, agreed to close the site to general Internet access to allow QinetiQ to undertake a technical investigation. The website was released to the public on a limited basis on 6 August 2002 and was made fully available to the public on 21 November 2002, since when it has operated effectively.
Now the next row has broken out over the withdrawal of access to paper records of births, marriages and deaths last month, slightly anticipating the online availability of those records which has slipped from "early 2008" to "mid-2009". I have no knowledge of what lies behind all this, but on the face of it the gap is an unfortunate one. There was a lot of talk in late 2001 that the then imminent 1901 census site might work as an encouragement to people to be interested in online government services more generally, even though nobody knew then (and I am not sure that anybody knows now) whether cross-selling in that way was feasible, still less how we might set about doing it.
I doubt that there are any such wider repercussions from this latest issue, even though it does allow the further reinforcement of the idea that all government IT projects invariably fail. It is also a very public service response: the hiatus is acceptable because there are no competitive consequences because, in turn, there is no alternative source of supply.
Online genealogy is worth thinking about for more positive reasons as well, though. Genealogy overall is said to be among the most popular hobbies (though on a quick search I couldn’t find any data on that), and a lot of it now done online. It seems a fair bet that this is one of the relatively few areas where over 50s are disproportionately highly represented, so prompting a couple of interesting questions.
In what other areas of activity do people use government records (albeit indirectly) for fun? What other government or quasi-government service might be imagined to have any influence on people’s propensity to get online or do different kinds of things online? What opportunities (if any) might that create for service development more generally?
But there’s no getting away from the fact that channel shift is difficult without a channel to shift to.