I was recently handed an interactive CD-ROM I hadn't seen since 1996. It's state of the art for its time, with an opening video sequence in which the Houses of Parliament morph into a chip on a motherboard accompanied by a synth-based soundtrack.

So what is this historic gem? Its title is "government.direct" and sets out a vision for electronic reform of public services. It features "interactive content" - photos and videos linked to highlighted text.

But it's not the technology which resonates - it's the content. Some 20 years later, what the CD-ROM highlights is the minimal progress towards public services that will be "more accessible, more convenient, easier to use, quicker in response and less costly to the taxpayer. And they will be delivered electronically. These will be better services and they will be different".

Both the government.direct Green Paper and the accompanying CD-ROM solicited public feedback - gathering "user needs", if you prefer. The CD-ROM even includes a feature that lets users take electronic notes as they review the proposals, with the ability to send those notes back to the Cabinet Office.

The emphasis throughout is on new types of public service tailored to meet users' needs. That's quite striking: it's not about taking an existing service and working out how to make it look better online. It's about re-thinking services.

That's because it was already recognised 20 years ago that public sector reform could not be achieved within the existing structures of government, with their narrow, departmental views of citizens and businesses. A Ministerial Group was established by the Prime Minster to explore how to deliver unified services from different levels and types of government. Services that centred on the citizen, spanning central and local government bodies.

Yet since 1996 we've experienced disappointingly little in terms of fundamental reform. Those who optimistically believe they are breaking new ground by improving the online experience are often merely tracing footprints on a path already much trodden, reinventing and rediscovering anew the same things – from a common website to cross-government platforms. The result has been several generations of faster horses.

Part of the challenge lies in the way that government's technology leadership periodically changes. With little corporate memory, the default behaviour has been to revamp government's online presence yet again rather than to tackle the truly complex issues of public sector reform.

And in part it's a general absence of first-hand experience of technology-enabled service design in the senior civil service. Like any other large organisation, the civil service defaults towards continuity rather than change. The siren call of maintaining the current inefficient vertical silos, processes, functions and operations - the important work of "keeping the lights on" - all too often silences efforts at real reform.

Unless these organisational and skill issues are resolved, it's likely that in another 20 years we'll be reading the government blogs and watching the videos of today with much the same sense of opportunities lost as when viewing the government.direct CD-ROM. We'll see ever faster horses trot out in new liveries and perhaps even repainted stables - but none of the fundamental improvements our public services really need.