In January this year, Alex Allan took up his position as the UK's e-envoy, with responsibility for implementing the Government's e-commerce strategy, email@example.com. His previous job was British High Commissioner to Australia and before that a career civil servant - in the Prime Minister's Office and at the Treasury. But he is no computer novice. He worked as a computer consultant in the 1980s, oversaw the launch of the first Number 10 Web site and pushed for computer-based information kiosks to be installed in consulates in Australia. He also has his own personal Web site.
Allan's remit as e-envoy is a tough one, given that the Government openly admits the UK has fallen behind many other countries in recent years, particularly in terms of the strategic importance attached to e-commerce by UK business leaders.
Several of the 60 commitments in the Government's e-commerce strategy are aimed at getting across to large and small businesses alike the message that e-commerce is important. These activities have got off to a slow start while promotional strategies are formulated and this perhaps explains why, although the IT industry is aware of Allan and his role, the majority of the wider business community - even those engaged in e-business - seem ignorant of his existence. However, a fair proportion of them have heard of e-minister Patricia Hewitt, who was appointed last year.
Already, Allan claims to have completed nine of the 60 targets in the strategy. Three of these relate to the appointment of Allan, Hewitt and e-commerce co-ordinators in major government departments - but the formation of an Information Age Management Board consisting of a small core of key decision makers has already fallen behind schedule. On the plus side, a number of reviews and position papers have been published (on areas such as barriers to e-commerce competition, banking and tax), while an encryption key management service for government departments is now up-and-running.
Allan is also responsible for an industry-led body called Trust UK which will provide accreditation for online codes of practice such as the Which? Webtrader scheme, which will be launched to consumers shortly.
However, smaller businesses have indicated that they would like a "seal of approval" for online traders to be provided directly by government rather than through a third-party, and there is the possibility that the existence of numerous accreditation bodies could increase confusion amongst consumers without allaying their fears.
While the launch of Trust UK is one of 42 commitments still on track, nine of the 60 commitments are already behind schedule. Several of these relate to international agreements on various aspects of e-commerce, with changes to the timetable outside Allan's control. More worrying are a number of activities for government departments which are already delayed, partly, it seems, due to the slow pace at which Whitehall reaches a consensus. This is a foretaste of battles to come, especially as Allan attempts to galvanise the public sector into meeting Government targets for online delivery of services and e-procurement.
Allan's ability to deliver is a key concern for Jan Gower, the partner responsible for consulting work in civil and local government at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. She thinks that Allan may be able to raise awareness and communicate the Government's vision of an e-enabled future, but she questions whether he has access to the levers of power to make e-business a reality within the public sector. "I think he should make clear the limits of his role and push harder to change the accepted rules about how government works, which are currently constraining what he is doing," she says.
However, the e-envoy's office should be congratulated for its openness about problems with the programme, through its regular progress reports available on the e-envoy's Web site. It has also reacted well to recent criticism. Eagle-eyed e-business strategists pointed out that including the telephone in its definition of electronic services could disguise serious failures to meet targets for online service delivery. A new target has been set which specifically aims to make all services available through the Internet or similar channels. Progress against this target will be distinguished from services delivered through call centres in the e-envoy's regular reports.
Allan has also had to respond to criticism from Margaret Beckett, leader of the House of Commons, that e-government plans might "render the UK infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to electronic attack". He says that the relevant infrastructure bodies and security services have been involved in developing and implementing information age Government policies, with specific guidance on issues such as Web site security to be published later this year.
The e-envoy certainly seems to have set off with a great deal of enthusiasm and an open and receptive attitude to the concerns of businesses, but it's clear he's already starting to get bogged down in the Whitehall machine. His ability to deliver on longer-term promises and to influence policy in other departments is still very much in doubt.
E-envoy question time
Q: What are the most significant things you have learnt since being appointed e-envoy and how have they influenced what you are doing?
I sometimes feel I learn 100 new things every day, so it is hard to pick out just one or two. But perhaps the most significant is that the pace of change in the private sector is faster than I realised or expected, and the pace of change in the public sector - with some honourable exceptions - is slower. That has influenced how I organise my time: I am doing more on e-Government than was envisaged in the e-commerce report published last year.
Q: How do you think the UK is doing compared to other countries?
I won't be satisfied until we have fulfilled the Prime Minister's target of making Britain the best place in the world for e-commerce. But we are making good progress in many areas, as is shown in the monthly reports that Patricia Hewitt and I produce. And the launch of the e-Government strategy by Ian McCartney shows our determination to make progress there too.
I don't really see this in terms of individual industries. There are stars and there are laggards in every industry. But of course, I am keen that we should make the most of the lead we have in industries like 3G mobiles and digital TV.
We plan to publish more information about comparisons with other countries in our annual report in July. I'm reasonably encouraged with how we're doing against our main competitors, though we've still got some way to go to catch the US in areas like Internet penetration.
Q: To what extent do you feel a government appointee can have any influence on private sector e-commerce and in which areas do you think you can have an influence?
What the Government can do is to get the framework right. That in itself will have a positive impact on private sector e-commerce. It's not for the Government to tell firms how to run their businesses.
In terms of my own role, I think it is useful to have a person or office which be a central point of contact on as core an issue as e-commerce.
And certainly there's a huge job to do both on policies on e-commerce and on our e-government strategy, both of which will have a big influence on Britain's success in e-commerce.
What should you expect from the e-envoy?
According to his own mission statement, e-envoy Alex Allan has been charged with "leading the UK in its drive to be the best place in the world for e-commerce". He will represent the UK in international negotiations, oversee the implementation of the 60 commitments in the Government's e-commerce strategy and the introduction of e-commerce in the public sector, and aim to raise awareness of the benefits of e-commerce among UK businesses.
However, Allan has very little power to implement or enforce changes himself. Instead, he must persuade government departments to implement e-friendly policies, try to influence developments internationally and encourage UK businesses to move forward with their e-commerce strategies. Together with e-minister Patricia Hewitt, he must report monthly to the Prime Minister on his progress.
The e-envoy's task has been divided into four strands:
Allan is backed by a team of around a dozen people and also oversees the Cabinet Office's Central IT Unit, which is responsible for the Information Age Government agenda. In this capacity, he is expected to work closely with Patricia Hewitt and with Ian McCartney, the Cabinet Office minister with responsibility for implementing the Modernising Government white paper.
More information about the e-envoy, the firstname.lastname@example.org strategy and progress on the 60 e-commerce commitments can be found through the e-envoy's Web site.
We are looking for direction from the Government
Richard Copeland, distribution and projects manager at One2One, hasn't been impressed by the e-envoy's efforts to promote e-business - for the simple reason that he hasn't heard about them. "I don't think we've been given a direction by government," Copeland says. "I assumed there would be a Government advisor but I didn't realise there was an e-envoy with specific tasks. I definitely think we should be aware of what he can do for us and, equally importantly, what we can do for him in terms of providing input to his plans."
Copeland is responsible for One2One's internet stock processing system, developed in conjunction with JBA, which allows mobile phone dealers to place orders for phones over the Web. The scheme has cut delivery times from five days to two, as well as providing dealers with better information about the status of orders. Copeland is now working on integrating the system with One2One's customer Web site to allow consumers to place orders for mobile phones directly.
Copeland says Web-based ordering has been eagerly embraced by larger dealers, but there are issues with getting smaller dealers online. He would like it to make sure e-business is an option for everyone by ensuring the necessary infrastructure is in place and priced appropriately. He also thinks the Government could promote training for technophobes and raise awareness of the realities of e-commerce to allay concerns about security.
We need greater online confidence
Rob Stephenson would like the e-envoy to give consumers and businesses the confidence to trade online, without tying them up in red tape. "The Government can make the conditions right for people to get into e-commerce, for example with tax breaks for IT equipment, but we don't want too much Government interference," he explains.
Stephenson is owner of SingleTrack Bikes, which specialises in hand-built BMX and off-road bikes. Its e-commerce solution, based on catalogue software from Actinic, accounts for around 15 per cent of the company's turnover after just a few months trading online.
Stephenson would like the Government to establish a programme, similar to the Which? Webtrader scheme, to give Web traders a "seal of approval" so that consumers can have confidence when buying online that the trader is a bona fide organisation. Companies who apply for the seal of approval would be vetted to see if they comply with a set of rules. If they pass, they would be allowed to display the approved logo on their Web sites.
Second, he would like the e-envoy to address the issue of credit card fraud from the perspective of e-merchants. At present, merchants undertake mail-order (which includes most e-commerce) at their own risk and have to bear the cost of any fraudulent credit card transactions, even if they are using one of the credit card authentication services. Stephenson would like the e-envoy to work with credit card companies to set up an insurance scheme to cover fraud by consumers.
The onus is on business
Mark Cashman, CEO of Banner Business Supplies, formerly part of The Stationery Office, which used to be HMSO before privatisation, believes that it's up to businesses to make the most of e-commerce. "The businesses that do best are the ones who pay attention to what their customers want and behave accordingly, irrespective of what the Government does," he explains.
However, he feels that the targets set by the Government for electronic service delivery and e-procurement within the public sector have stirred up a lot of interest which will act as a stimulus and catalyst for the private sector. In particular, he thinks government will demonstrate that the economics of e-business - and especially e-procurement - are so compelling, in the longer term that UK companies will have to adopt e-business solutions if they want to remain competitive with businesses in the US, European Union and Asia.
As a major supplier to the public sector, Banner's business is directly impacted by the government's target for 90 per cent of low-value government purchasing to be handled electronically by April 2001. Banner has just become the first external company to provide an electronic catalogue to the Government Secure Intranet, using Infobank's InTrade e-procurement solution.
Tax relief on e-commerce investment needed
Alison Zwaard, managing director of mail order company Out of Afrika, which supplies contemporary South African gifts and homeware, has been impressed by the job being done by e-minister Patricia Hewitt, although she wasn't aware that an e-envoy had also been appointed. Zwaard has just added an e-commerce facility to her business using Actinic's catalogue software and she thinks the e-envoy can help her in two ways.
Firstly, she would like the e-envoy to encourage the Treasury to extend tax relief on capital investment in new IT solutions to the significant costs of building a Web site and carrying out R&D prior to entering the e-commerce marketplace. Second, she would like the e-envoy to press the Inland Revenue to revisit the proposed changes to the tax status of contractors (known as IR35).
"Most small businesses don't need full-time IT staff, but we rely on contractors to build our Web sites and give support," she points out. Zwaard would like the e-envoy to work with other government departments to cut out red tape. "There are a lot of young entrepreneurs building Web sites and doing well, but they have to spend too much time filling out forms rather than getting on with what they're good at," she says.