The job that could be e-mission impossible

he race is on to fill the shoes of Alex Allan, the UK's first e-envoy, whose sudden resignation left a gap in New Labour's...

he race is on to fill the shoes of Alex Allan, the UK's first e-envoy, whose sudden resignation left a gap in New Labour's e-everything strategy.

Simon Moores

Tech talk

The job is a mini Mission Impossible, which combines a weighty responsibility for public sector and civil service IT development targets with the role of that of an e-commerce evangelist. A mission that even the versatile Tom Cruise might have second thoughts about.

Allan was the supreme insider and replacing his diplomatic skills with another mandarin with equal accomplishments now seems increasingly unlikely.

The role of e-envoy has evolved quite significantly since the beginning of the year and has assumed a public-facing and frequently international globetrotting role: a job that demands rather more of the soapbox and less of the shadows.

Finding a new e-envoy involves, we are told, a process of open competition with the new man, or woman, comfortably installed by the end of November.

This target does seem to be asking the impossible of both the Cabinet Office and the political process and is arguably a mechanical impossibility.

As regards the contenders, there are those that are serious and then there are the other, more colourful, candidates who may be giving more thought to the PR value of applying than the chances of actually being selected from a shortlist by the Prime Minister.

Jim Norton, the popular favourite and head of e-business at the Institute of Directors, is now definitely out of the picture. Very much the king-maker, he's thrown his support behind the campaign of Richard Barrington, the e-envoy's director of industry; a role he's filling on secondment from Sun Microsystems.

A second possibility is Anne Steward, director of the Central IT Unit at the Cabinet Office and a well qualified and highly respected civil servant. Whether she could expect the same level of support as Barrington from the "captains of industry" is open to speculation.

It has been suggested that Tony Blair could make a wild card appointment, while maintaining the appearance of a broader selection process.

Rumour has it that he might appoint Patricia Hewitt, the small business minister, directly to the Cabinet as e-minister, a New Labour-style role. The office of the e-envoy, and whoever wins the existing competition, would then fall within her new domain.

Promoting Hewitt is a solution that might benefit both the public and private sector - but only if the team surrounding an e-minister is a remarkably strong one. The downside of being e-minister is that, like the England football manager, the incumbent will be responsible for the country's e-commerce failures as well as its victories.

The e-envoy job, as it has evolved, leans more towards experience in the IT industry than the civil service. If the Government is to avoid repeating the mistakes of IR35 and RIP, then it may be wise to appoint someone who knows what Java is rather than where it is on the map.

Simon Moores is chairman of The Research Group

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