Critics prompt ministers' rethink

Minister to review e-government after opposition attacks pace of change in e-government strategy. Mike Simons reports

Minister to review e-government after opposition attacks pace of change in e-government strategy. Mike Simons reports

The Government is reviewing the definition of electronic communications in its e-government proposals after stinging criticism from the opposition over the pace of change.

A cabinet office minister admitted the review after opposition spokesman Andrew Lansley told the House of Commons, "If the Government's intentions on electronic government were serious, two things would have been doneÉ first, managed call centres would have been taken out of the definition of electronic service delivery; and second, the target date for the proportion of services delivered genuinely electronically would have been 2002, not 2005."

Government critics have long argued that including the telephone in the definition of electronic communications was a cop-out that could disguise serious failings in delivering online services.

Ministers' discomfort was increased with the leak of a letter from Margaret Beckett, leader of the House of Commons, to Tony Blair, which warned the prime minister that his e-government plans might "render the UK infrastructure increasingly vulnerable to electronic attack".

The letter, sent shortly before last week's announcement, said the e-government strategy document "does not contain adequate treatment" of security.

Beckett led the Govern-ment's millennium bug campaign. She claimed the government had failed to learn lessons from efforts to overcome the Y2K problem.

Beckett's letter was sent to Cabinet Office minister Ian McCartney and copies were sent to Blair and the head of the civil service. It was leaked to the Times.

Separately, the Govern-ment has fallen behind on 10 of the 60 key measures that e-envoy Alex Allan has identified to gauge UK progress in e-commerce.

The e-envoy publishes a monthly checklist of "progress on implementing the commitments contained in last year's e-commerce@its.best.uk discussion paper".

Many of the areas of delay surround the Government's efforts to liberalise the UK telephone market to prevent barriers to e-commerce, including unbundling the local loop.

Others include establishing new arrangements for more effective cross-departmental working in government, publication of government departments' performance targets for e-procurement and a programme for e-commerce knowledge transfer from the private to the public sector.

Despite the delays, Allan is confident about the challenges ahead. Speaking to Computer Weekly, he said his role was to be both an evangelist and a business manager in driving through change.

Allan said the Government had been setting up frameworks, but now had to work more closely with departments. He insisted that the e-government strategy has full buy-in among cabinet ministers and senior civil servants.

"I'm quite optimistic about buy-in. People are already beginning to see a change. People can't help but notice what is happening in the private sector," he added.

The e-government strategy was discussed at a full cabinet meeting before it was announced, said Allan, who was particularly struck by home secretary Jack Straw's attitude. "Home Office IT has not been the most effective," said Allan. "But Jack Straw was really clear of the dangers if ministers didn't get involved and stay involved".

The e-envoy admitted that the UK had fallen behind some competitors in e-commerce. He also attempted to reassure UK businesses that they have nothing to fear from the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which gives the Government powers to intercept electronic communications.

He also sought to reassure public sector IT managers who fear the skills shortage will prevent them from delivering e-government targets.

"In some key areas it might mean bringing people in on secondment from the private sector," said Allan.

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