Alex Allan, the UK's first e-envoy, has left the UK after less than a year in office. It is a blow to the Government and a deep disappointment to Allan himself, who resigned with reluctance because he feared his wife's poor health would prevent him devoting his full energies to the job.
In a valedictory interview with E-Business Review, Allan said he believed the achievements of his time in office outweighed the frustrations.
For Allan, the biggest achievement of his team has been changing attitudes to e-commerce in government.
"The whole e-commerce and e-government agenda is now more part of the mainstream," he said. "When you look back a year at the e-commerce report (UK. [email protected] Best), the problems have changed. We've now got a better class of problem."
Allan pointed to Internet take-up as an example. "A year ago there was a sense that no one was taking up Internet access. Now numbers have doubled, and the issue is the digital divide."
He acknowledged there is still a problem over unmetered access, but said the debate had changed. "The cost of off-peak connection to the Internet is now very cheap. The issue has moved on to how fast you can roll out broadband, unbundle the local loop, and introduce competition?" While this was a problem, said Allan, it was also "symptomatic of the fact that we are making progress".
One of Allan's first moves was to bring forward Tony Blair's target for delivering all government services electronically. "We said 2008 was ridiculous. We've got to bring it back onto people's planning horizons, and so we bought the target date forward to 2005."
A year on, Allan can say government departments are laying out their e-business strategies and the Treasury has used its annual spending review to give some leverage to his efforts.
"We really have kicked this up the agenda. I don't pretend that we've solved every problem, but we have a better understanding of the problems we face."
As a former private secretary to the Prime Minister and ambassador to Australia, Allan is too diplomatic to say much about the problems he has faced, in particular the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) legislation and the IR35 tax changes that hit IT contractors. He did say that some of the claims made about state surveillance under RIP were exaggerated, and admitted that one of his biggest frustrations was the pace of change in government.
Delivering e-government requires a cultural revolution in Whitehall and the town halls, just as much as delivering e-commerce requires a revolution in the boardroom. Creating that change within government, said Allan, required both a top-down and bottom-up approach.
"You've got to have a two-strand approach. It is very important to make sure that ministers and senior officials understand where we are going. That is happening. The image that there are Sir Humphreys sitting around has been blown away. People are genuinely interested."
Allan is convinced that real-life experience is the key enabler of e-government. "Civil servants are human like everyone else. They are beginning to find technology becoming more and more a part of their personal life, and are asking 'couldn't we use this technology better at work?' It is very important that we try and capture the innovation that is there."
Outside the public sector, there was evidence everywhere of the e-business revolution sweeping the country. Allan saw a need for the Government to support this by driving up levels of Internet penetration.
"You can't see what the world will look like in a year or two years' time, but you can see the trend, and the Government has a role to play."
One of Allan's achievements was to strengthen and focus the Government's IT specialists. In the past, efforts had been divided or duplicated between the Cabinet Office IT Unit (CITU), which was charged with developing policy, and the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), which was responsible for procurement, consultancy and best practice. There is now a more structured organisation, with the CITU reborn as the e-government team, as well as an e-commerce team, and an e-communications team.
Allan said it was vital to build the Government's IT strength, and to get the talent under one roof. The CCTA has been absorbed into the new Office of Government Commerce (OGC) under Peter Gershon, former head of BAe Systems. Allan thought the OGC would have a key role in building partnerships with IT suppliers and preventing the re-run of the disasters that have hit so many government IT projects. progress
Given that the private sector still has IT difficulties, said Allan, "I don't pretend we won't have any problems, but we are making progress. Peter Gershon is very focused on developing a more structured relationship with the big suppliers and they have regular meetings".
Equally important in his eyes was the independent review process that was established after the Cabinet Office analysis of IT failures, which was published in June.
As he prepared for his return to Australia, Allan mused on a facet of e-government that ministers might not have predicted when they outlined their vision of the future. "Both RIP and IR35 were examples of the new power of the Internet in raising things up the political agenda," said Allan, adding that the protests outside the World Trade Organisation meetings in Seattle last year and Prague last week were evidence of a similar process at work.
"We will start to see how different means of communication affect politics. It is a fascinating development."