Making e-government reality

E-envoy Andrew Pinder will use his new full-time position to drive the Government's progress in delivering more of its services...

E-envoy Andrew Pinder will use his new full-time position to drive the Government's progress in delivering more of its services via the Web

David Bicknell

Scroll back to last October, and the UK government's much-vaunted strategy of employing an 'envoy' to facilitate the take-up of electronic commerce was in trouble. Tony Blair's choice, Alex Allan - who promised much in the role having been tempted back from a job as British High Commissioner in Australia - had returned Down Under because of family reasons, just around the time the government was unveiling its second e-commerce "State of the Nation" report.

Somewhat rashly, government sources suggested that a full-scale Civil Service successor to Allan would be in place in November. Now, finally at the start of February, the government has its man - the same man who's been baby-sitting the UK's e-commerce strategy since late last year, Andrew Pinder.

At last, it seems, UK industry, Whitehall mandarins, and Number Ten, has a man they can do business with, who is knowledgeable about the way Whitehall works, and who also has an extensive working knowledge of IT in the private sector. Oh, and he's also set up a couple of dotcom businesses for good measure.

There will be some who are disappointed that Jim Norton, who won the Cabinet Office beauty contest first time around, and who is now doing an excellent job as e-commerce guru at the Institute of Directors as well as advising the Scottish parliament on e-business, did not throw his hat into the ring again. But Norton almost certainly did the right thing. Having been instrumental in getting together the first Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) report in 1999, Norton is probably better off outside, where he can perhaps usefully influence policy.

Significantly, Norton believes Pinder is an excellent appointment because of his public sector background - he was previously information technology director at the Inland Revenue - and the private sector experience he gained at Citibank.

The irony is that having originally insisted that he was only filling in for Allan, and didn't want the job full-time, he now believes it is "enjoyable and challenging" and is pleased to be doing it. The fact that he's been in the 'job' three months now, means that there is a good degree of continuity, which is what the job now requires if it is to be a job at all. Were Pinder to suddenly decide that he could not finish the role, there would have been little point in appointing another e-envoy; the job would have lost credibility, and no-one in their right mind would want it.

Not that Pinder expects the role, which since Allan's time has been redesigned to chaperone the government's efforts to ensure that all government services are online by 2005, to be anything less than testing. Already a string of research updates have suggested that the government is behind in its efforts, though Pinder has denied the charge, saying e-strategies for departments are now in place, and that they can hit the 2005 deadline.

What might help Pinder in his task, some government insiders say, is a promotion for current e-minister Patricia Hewitt to Cabinet rank if and when Labour retains office at the anticipated General Election in a couple of months time. How should he tackle the job? Well, witness this bit of advice from the outer environs of government.

"The way Andrew won't get anything done, and will get departments' backs-up, is to create some sort of super-department of the e-envoy. Doing that effectively puts him in competition with other departments, and is a sure-fire way of getting no co-operation. But if he adopts a softly-softly approach, saying he's just implementing the Prime Minister's bidding as a facilitator or 'think-tank', they're more likely to take notice. That is why Patricia Hewitt's promotion is so crucial. She gives Pinder some clout within government.

Otherwise, when it comes to making departments like the Department of Health jump through hoops and change working practices to facilitate e-business, it just won't happen."

For the last few months, Pinder has been able to see how the job might work and get to know the key figures but, as caretaker, he did not have to take full responsibility. Now, he's in the hot seat - and on behalf of the government's e-business strategy, he will be expected to deliver.

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment