The resignation of e-envoy Alex Allan is a major blow to a government that is struggling to convince industry that it really is e-commerce friendly.
It also threatens to undermine ministers' efforts to get government IT back on-track after years of disasters.
The Cabinet Office hopes to have a new e-envoy in place by early November, but it will hard pushed to do so.
It will be difficult to find someone who can match Allan's combination of Civil Service experience, political savvy gained as private secretary to John Major when he was prime minister, and sound knowledge of IT.
However, there are some potential candidates who could do a job for government. Early names in the frame include:
- Jim Norton, head of e-commerce policy at the Institute of Directors and author of last year's government policy document, email@example.com;
- Ann Steward, director of the Cabinet Office IT Unit and the driving force behind this summer's review of major government IT projects;
- Peter Gershon, chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce and former chief operating officer of BAe Systems;
- Steve Mathieson, board member of the Inland Revenue;
- Margaret Smith, e-commerce director at financial services company Legal & General.
But doubts over what exactly the job involves could jeopardise landing any of these candidates.
The e-envoy's role, as originally conceived, was to make a reality of Tony Blair's claim that the UK would be the best place in the world to do e-business.
Then, as ministers were buffeted by disasters, including the Post Office/Benefits Agency Horizon Project, the Passport Office and Immigration and Nationality Directorate failures, the job expanded to include government IT project management.
The IT industry was told an insider, rather than a business figure was needed to overcome Whitehall inertia and Westminster paranoia. Norton, who won the "beauty contest" when the job was advertised, was sidelined and Allan was appointed.
Allan has won wide respect for his efforts since he took office in January, but the reality of the Government's performance this year undermined the argument for an insider.
Business has been left reeling from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the IR35 tax changes for contractors, while public sector IT directors have complained bitterly of being deluged with edicts but not being able to gain the ear of the powers that be.
Three jobs in one
In the wake of Allan's resignation few experts blamed the e-envoy personally for the shortcomings of government IT policy. Most felt he had an impossible task.
Reacting to Allan's resignation, Norton said the e-envoy's position was potentially the job of three people, one focusing on revolutionising government IT, one driving forward UK e-commerce and one negotiating internationally on e-commerce and Internet-related issues. Norton has not ruled himself out of the job.
Another who felt the job had to change was Tom Wills-Sandford, business area director of the Federation of the Electronics Industry. He said, "We see the role having two parts. The first is as a Whitehall insider ensuring that we make progress towards e-government. But the role we would really like to see filled is a proselytiser, an advocate for e-business.
"That's the role president Clinton's e-commerce advisor Ira Magaziner used to have with the US government. It requires someone to be able to stand up and get the message over for e-business."
Nigel Hickson, e-commerce specialist at employers body the CBI, said, "We have to have someone who has sufficient authority within Whitehall to make substantial progress on electronic government, and someone who can also represent UK plc on a world stage.
"There are people around who can do that, who have started off in government and moved to industry, or gone the other way. I doubt whether splitting the job up will happen."
The government is left in a dilemma over how it can fit various candidates, with differing expertise, into the role.
If the ministers decide not to split the job they will have to appoint someone who has more political muscle than Allan had. If they do split the post, an industry figure could drive forward the e-commerce agenda, while a more robust Cabinet Office IT Unit would have a chance of delivering Blair's electronic government proposals.
However they cut it, Blair will have to work hard to ensure a credible replacement for Allan is in place in November.
Key tasks for the government
- Remove the shackles on e-business. Sort out the RIP Act debacle, remove the IR35 tax regime on contractors and convince the chancellor of the exchequer to give proper tax breaks for IT investment.
- Negotiate a workable international legal framework for e-business and the Internet.
- Listen to the IT users - large companies spearheading the UK's e-commerce efforts, such as the Kingfisher Group - not just suppliers such as Microsoft and ICL.
- Deliver successful large-scale IT projects. The Cabinet Office's report on avoiding IT disasters, published in May, contained excellent recommendations, but it remains only a report.
- Push through the electronic delivery of government services. A little over a third of government services are currently online and most of these are information, not transaction based. All of them must be delivered electronically by 2005.
Peter Gershon – a heavy hitter from the private sector now in Whitehall: The former chief operating officer of BAe Systems is already having to fight to keep the Office of Government Commerce on track.
Margaret Smith – e-commerce director at financial services company Legal & General: She has the reputation and clout to make a success of the e-envoy's job. But unless the job specification is changed she might lack the clout in Whitehall.
Jim Norton – unlikely to take the job as it is presently constituted: The Institute of Directors man has the tacit support of some industry bodies such as the Computing Services & Software Association, and the Federation of the Electronics Industry.