Anyone taking on a high-profile role within government or industry must be prepared to justify his own existence to professional colleagues and the media. It is, therefore, with a sense of grateful reluctance that I pen my first of four columns for CW360.com over the coming month.
This process of setting out my stall and considering the questions asked of me has certainly consolidated my understanding of the criticisms of the role . After a whirlwind six weeks in the post, and a fairly frantic three months as acting e-Envoy before that, I am the first to admit that it is a very big job.
The e-Envoy is a focal point; someone who has to provide a sense of vision and to draw upon the vision of others. It is about pulling things together and making connections across a very broad spectrum within and outside government. As part of the UK online programme, the fundamental aim of the office of the e-Envoy is to make the UK a world leader in e-commerce and in doing so improve the economy and boost GDP.
There are three main strands in achieving this aim. Firstly, it involves creating the right environment for e-commerce; this includes both the physical IT infrastructure and the legislative framework. Second, I am here to drive forward the process of getting government online. The e-strategies laid out by Whitehall departments demonstrate that most are well on track to meet the 2005 target to deliver all appropriate government services electronically.
The third area of my role is the responsibility to get UK citizens online and ensure that everyone who wants it has access to the Internet. I will strive to close the digital divide. I am acutely aware of those critics who say that, as a civil servant in Whitehall, I will not also be a champion for industry. This is not the case. My experience in the private sector - in everything from venture capital firms and Internet start-ups to financial conglomerates such as Citibank and Prudential - means that I do understand industry's needs and concerns; from the need for clarity and consistency of regulation to broadband roll out. As a Whitehall official I am equally well equipped to relay those needs and concerns back to government. Most often this process will have an impact that is not readily visible to the public. However, I will not hesitate to tread on a few toes to achieve what I believe is the best result for UK PLC.
Being a voice of industry within government is a responsibility I take very seriously, but I will not engage in public brawls with ministers. It is not constructive and will harm the dialogue between industry and the state . I hope IT directors and CIOs accept my assurance that lobbying the e-Envoy can work, but it must be understood that I will not be giving a running commentary in the media as to whose side I am on in any particular government/industry wrangle. Organisations already exist that are well placed to do this.
The e-Envoy's pivotal position is also fundamental in allowing government to look at the big picture, to view the country as a whole rather than by sector. The recently published action plan, "UK online: the broadband future", outlines how the government aims to facilitate the roll-out of broadband networks across the UK. The strategy relies upon private sector competition and, therefore, begs the question: so what is the role of government?
Picture a market town of 10,000 people as an example. On initial examination, suppliers would be hard pressed to develop a viable business case for rolling out broadband. However, government, in one form or another, is likely to procure broadband connections for schools, libraries, the local Jobcentre, local authority premises, the police station and GP surgeries. If public sector demand can be aggregated, this market town of 10,000 people may command over 50MB/s. Private sector suppliers will then be able to see the commercial advantage of serving such an area.
The right role for government, therefore, is in ensuring that industry players have an accurate market picture. These connections can only be made from a central viewpoint - such as that of the e-Envoy. Consolidating a knowledge-based economy in the UK calls for a dramatic change of speed and direction from government. Rather than stumbling to keep up, or even just catch up with the advances of the private sector, we will drive forward to change and shape future developments.
Over the next 18 months, the arrival of more and more online transactional services through the Government Gateway will require the use of digital certificates. So far, use of digital certificates across the private sector - and consideration of authentication methods more widely - has been limited. Our intent is simple: as awareness and confidence in digital certificates increases through the use of the Gateway, the process will diffuse across the private sector. From now on we will be looking at how to widen the spread of digital certificates and to encourage industry to take security issues more seriously.
The Internet has enormous unrealised potential as a purchasing tool. Many people who happily divulge their credit card details over the phone remain reluctant to do so over the Internet. Government, as well as industry, is contributing to the Trust UK scheme, the system of hallmarks that certifies the security and reliability of transactional sites. Building up confidence and trust in the Internet is of course key - and this is why we have stated that by 2005 all who want it will have access to the Internet.
The UK online programme was established to build up a skilled and e-confident population. The government has invested millions of pounds in UK online centres. We now have 1,200 centres and there will be 2,000 by 2002, offering low cost or free Internet access and training.
There is no doubt that my role is "multi-faceted", but I believe in results. It is this emphasis on results that I hope will encourage CW360.com readers to realise that the government is committed to getting the UK online, whether it be through resourcing e-government initiatives or by ensuring that we are creating the best environment possible for e-commerce.
Next week: Andrew Pinder on his plans to boost UK e-commerce