Forum shelved: governments just don't "get" the Internet

Fiona Harvey looks at hype and reality around e-government after a London conference is cancelled

Fiona Harvey looks at hype and reality around e-government after a London conference is cancelled

Have governments any hope of ever "getting" the Internet? That was the question posed by the cancellation last month of the World Internet Forum, a conference planned for London that would have discussed how governments can use the Internet to cut costs and improve their services to their citizens.

The conference had to be cancelled at the last minute because of the lack of interest from governments. The organisers had been expecting 200 delegates, mostly government officials from around the world, to show up, paying about £1,200 each for a ticket, and in the event managed to sign up only about half that figure. They blamed apathy on the part of governments for the cancellation, and promised that the conference would be rescheduled at a later date if possible.

Derek Wyatt, Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, is the man who came up with the idea for the World Internet Forum, which he envisaged as an alternative to the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland. "The World Economic Forum is a rich man's club. What you need is a more democratic forum, open to all, where representatives from different countries can get together to talk about how best to use the Internet to improve their efficiency," he explained.

At the Forum, delegates would have discussed Internet projects already completed or under way in different countries, and would have developed some "best practice" models for e-government projects.

Developing countries would also have benefited from the experience gained by more developed countries in architecting their e-government projects, according to the organisers.

While he had nothing to do with the organisation of the conference - which was handled by the World Internet Forum's chief executive Robert Blaney - Wyatt was scathing about governments' response to the Internet.

He believes governments need to define for themselves a concept of "government.com", which would describe how governments could use the Internet across their activities to generate better communications between government departments and better services.

He pointed to the recent protests against the World Trade Organisation and the fuel protests in the UK as examples of how movements have "got" the Internet, and said governments needed to take a leaf out of their opponents' books.

Wyatt will be lecturing on "government.com" in Bilbao, Spain, later this year.

If governments are apathetic about the net, nothing could be further from the scene in the business world. While dotcom stocks may have taken a battering in the last few months, the enthusiastic take-up of the Internet by companies eager to find new customers and markets, or reaching a global audience, or cutting their costs using business-to-business online exchanges has continued unabated.

German media giant, Bertelsmann, for instance, did a deal with Napster, the Internet music renegade, to start distributing its music on the Web. A recent survey from the World Information Technology and Services Alliance found that worldwide spending on IT, which totalled $2.1 trillion in 1999, would rise by 50% by 2004.

Derek Brown, technology analyst at stockbrokers Robertson Stephens saidthat governments had not taken up the Internet in the way that industry had, and could learn from business examples.

"There is enormous pent-up demand in governments for data management,"he said, giving the example of the NHS, in which he said huge cost savings could be made if everyday functions and procedures were automated, in the way that they are in large companies.

According to his estimates, paper transactions in the NHS could cost as much as $10 (£7) a time, while if they were automated, the cost would be more like 50 cents.

"In the public sector in the 1980s and 1990s we saw the private finance initiative and waves of IT outsourcing generate huge cost savings," he noted. Another wave of Internet projects could do the same, he said.

When governments did finally start to use the Internet in the same way as industry, they would be eagerly welcomed by software vendors, who saw a vast untapped market for their wares in the public sector, Brown said.

The UK Government, meanwhile, believes it has "got" the Internet. A spokes-man pointed to the promise by the prime minister, Tony Blair, that all government services would be capable of being delivered electronically by 2005. "We are still on track to deliver on that promise,"he said.

Fiona Harvey is former editor of business technology bible PC Week and business monthly Internet World. She now writes for the Financial Times

This was last published in December 2000

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