Thought for the day:Let's get back to e-basics

The government's dream of a greater e-Britain needs a lot more attention to fundamentals to become a truly valuable reality,...

The government's dream of a greater e-Britain needs a lot more attention to fundamentals to become a truly valuable reality, argues Simon Moores.

Let's get the good news out of the way first. Britain is the second best place in the world for e-business according to an independent report by Booz Allen Hamilton entitled, The world's most effective policies for the e-economy.

Once the cheering has subsided, I can also tell you that it's a very substantial report, packed with colourful graphs and useful information on all things "e".

The good news was delivered at this week's e-Summit in London. A parade of government ministers and international e-envoys were there to support our own e-envoy Andrew Pinder and the prime minister, who told us that we were doing well "but not well enough" in our race to build this elusive thing called a knowledge economy.

"They're all very polished," remarked one journalist, as he listened to Patricia Hewitt pressing the government's arguments home. "And I suppose that if a minister talks like a duck and walks like a duck, then, we, the public have to believe it's a duck, even if there's some furious paddling below the waterline and the message itself is so very general in its nature that it defies any solid criticism."

Digby Jones of the CBI threw a polite spanner into the works by suggesting that as a nation "we were in danger of sleepwalking into decline" and warned the government that new European legislation risked devastating the "agency jobs" sector - visions of IR45 again - on which the UK IT market floats.

But if the news is so good, why did I leave the QEII centre feeling utterly depressed and why were the other hacks also less than inspired?

I have pages of notes about the reform of public services and snappy quotes from Douglas Alexander, the minister for e-transformation. Perhaps I'm simply missing the torchlight procession around Parliament Square?

But it was the atmosphere of spin that really rankled. The Q&A session with the No10 spokesperson - I'm not allowed to use his name - was cut abruptly short and the next Q&A session with Patricia Hewitt and friends was abruptly cancelled.

This left many in the audience with the distinct feeling that questions were not to be encouraged. Our pre-ordained role was to listen politely, applaud on demand and come away from the summit suitably impressed by both the gloss and the apparent progress made to date.

There was one point I really wanted to raise and, as I wasn't able to, I'll raise it here.

The prime minister has announced that all schools will have 2Mb broadband connections by 2006, which is undeniably good news. But any recent copy of the Times Educational Supplement will tell you that schools, and particularly primary schools, need rather more than a snowstorm of PCs, new software and a broadband connection.

Schools are just as desperate for skilled staff that can look after all the expensive ICT and manage the interoperability challenge being thrown at them by Downing Street.

Even if they can find the staff, what happens 18 months later when the PCs start to wear out or the cost of software licences starts to bite in schools that are hard pressed to provide textbooks?

Until we can train a new generation of teachers skilled in ICT - and I write as one who has left teaching technology in schools for technology in the private sector - we must find ways to plug the skills gap.

I have a suggestion for Tony Blair. With so many universities now running computing and computer science courses, why not consider offering undergraduate students academic credit for helping local schools manage their IT? In Kuwait, for example, computer science students can receive 20% credit on their courses if they qualify as Cisco engineers. Perhaps we can learn from this?

I'm all in favour of a big picture view of tomorrow's economy, fired by the white heat of certainty in the promise of technology, but some of the more basic questions are not being given the attention they deserve, such as who is going to manage all this new technology when it arrives in my daughter's primary school?

What's your view? How will the knowledge economy progress beyond a dream? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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