Blair given low marks on the e-economy as envoy resigns

Has the Government succeeded in making the UK the world's best environment for e-commerce? David Bicknell asks five industry...

Has the Government succeeded in making the UK the world's best environment for e-commerce? David Bicknell asks five industry commentators to compile their own reports of the Government's progress

A year ago, the prime minister Tony Blair launched his bid to make the UK the world's best environment for electronic commerce.

The Government was set to present its first annual report into the progress of the of e-economy in the UK next week.

After the shock resignation of e-envoy Alex Allan on Tuesday, the report will be closely scrutinised.

The update on 60 targets identified in the Performance and Innovation Unit's report Ecommerce@itsbest was meant to be the Government's first annual scorecard on e-commerce.

So, how has the Government done? Computer Weekly asked five key commentators on the Government's e-commerce strategy over the past few years for their opinions: Jim Norton, who headed the PIU team that produced the report; Peter Sommer, of the London School of Economics; John Higgins, director-general of the Computing Services & Software Association; Anthony Parish, director-general of the Federation of the Electronics Industry; and Nigel Hickson, formerly a civil servant dealing with e-commerce issues at the Department of Trade & Industry, and now with employers' body the CBI.

None of them has an axe to grind with the Government's efforts, they all want to see the UK catch up and overtake countries such as the US, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Germany and France. All were quizzed prior to the news of Allan's resignation.

The year has been marked by a series of problems surrounding e-commerce. The row over contractors and IR35, concern over the effects of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and a series of online security glitches in the banking sector have made it an uphill task for the Government.

The panel's end-of-term report is based on three issues in the PIU report:

  • Understanding - getting business, individuals, and government to appreciate the opportunities

  • Access - giving everyone the elements required to participate

  • Trust - getting people to accept the new tools of e-commerce

    Jim Norton

    Organisation: Institute of Directors

    Marks:

    Understanding 6/10
    Access 9/10
    Trust 3/10

    Comments: The Government has made efforts on understanding and access, but trust is where it has fallen down. With the RIP Act and banking problems, there is less trust in e-commerce than there was a year ago. Although the Government has tried to put services online, too few of the business processes have changed, because the mindset for change is not there.

    Maybe business should get a Swat squad together and send them in to get the mindset changed, but business may feel it was wasting its time unless there was a guarantee that the ideas would be implemented.

    Anthony Parish

    Organisation: Federation of the EIectronics Industry

    Marks:

    Understanding 6/10
    Access 4/10
    Trust 2/10

    Comments: The Government's attempts to promote access for all have not got very far at all, apart from getting computers to some unemployed people. The situation over the RIP Act has clearly not helped in providing trust, but I think everyone, including industry, was also at fault over that.

    In hindsight, we were almost in a better position to influence developments with the Electronic Communications Bill while that was with the DTI. When it comes to legislation on e-commerce, the Government should just get out of the way.

    Peter Sommer

    Organisation: London School of Economics

    Marks:

    Understanding 4/10
    Access 4/10
    Trust 3/10

    Comments: I suspect that when the Government's report comes out there will not be too much talk about targets, because on many of them it is not able to deliver. And when the Government sets next year's targets, there will not be as many as the 60 there were in the PIU report.

    The Government must learn not to publicise what it cannot deliver, it should learn more about e-commerce and should do away with the lobbyists.

    John Higgins

    Organisation: Computer Services & Software Association

    Marks:

    Understanding 8/10
    Access 5/10
    Trust 6/10

    Comments: There is much greater awareness of the possibilities of e-commerce, but to be honest I'm not sure the Government can really take too much credit for it. We still have a way to go on getting access sorted out - the idea of "always on" (the Internet) for business is a long way away. We have a long way to go on trust too. The figures for fraud on the Net show that it is a real concern to the public.

    The Government could be taking a greater lead in promoting its Web "seal of seals" Trust UK, and business needs to be more aware of legislation emerging from Europe.

    Nigel Hickson

    Organisation: Confederation of British Industry

    Marks:

    Understanding 8/10
    Access 7/10
    Trust 5/10

    Comments: I think the Government can take some credit for the greater understanding of the e-commerce possibilities out there, though a lot of it is down to "the market". There is a debate over access, because off-peak charges are low, but peak business charges are still problematic. Although business is rushing to provide e-commerce services, retaining public trust in the services remains a problem. When it comes to e-government, the Government has to ensure that it considers the e-commerce aspects of all areas of legislation, such as transport and the environment.

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