If Chancellor Gordon Brown is going to deliver on his Budget's pledge to make the UK a land fit for ebusiness heroes, the man he will rely on more than most is Alex Allan, the UK government's new e-envoy.
Allan, it should be said, has his work cut out. By his own admission the government has not been successful enough in introducing its services online. Grilled by MPs last week, he also admitted that the UK is losing its prominence as a leader in the global ebusiness race.
But, speaking to Accountancy Age in his first major interview since taking up his new post, Allan says he plans to change that with 'tough but fair' targets for the government to get its services online, targets that would stretch agencies to their limit. With the government publicly practising what it preaches, he believes that the UK can lead the global ebusiness race once again.
"We have had some successes but, by and large, not as much as we would have liked," he says. "Technology offers the government a tremendous opportunity to become a smarter and faster-moving beast. It also offers us an opportunity to radically improve our services in a way similar to firms in the private sector, and an opportunity to have more joined-up information about individuals."
Allan acknowledges that there has to be a balancing act to make the targets fair. "A challenge," he concedes.
Revised targets for introducing agency services electronically are due to be unveiled in July, following criticism from a National Audit Office report that the current targets are too soft.
Allan rejects that criticism. When the targets, which include making 25 per cent of its transactions available to the public electronically by 2002 and 100 per cent by 2008, were laid out last year in a modernising government White Paper they were said to be tough. But Allan admits that the dates could be brought forward.
"People don't want to be working with a multitude of government offices, they want a seamless service, and the sooner we can offer that the better," he says. "Joining up government is a hard issue but one we are working towards."
The long road ahead
Prime Minister Tony Blair has repeatedly gone on record as saying he wishes to see the UK as the best place in the world in which to trade electronically - both in terms of government services and by creating an environment in which companies are attracted to work in. But the UK has some way to go before it can make that proud boast. Only last week, in front of the Commons' Public Accounts Committee, Allan admitted that the UK was losing ground, not gaining.
"We have slipped behind a number of other countries," he told MPs. "Australia is one of them." Then there is the US, a country recognised as being two to three years ahead of the UK in terms of internet development. But Allan might be the man to close that gap. He is no stranger to Australia having swapped the surf of the south Pacific as the UK High Commissioner to Australia for surfing the web as e-minister in London.
"We in the UK are doing well," he says. "I am impressed and encouraged by what I have seen since I came into the job. What has struck me is the massive realisation of the opportunities out there. This has been reflected in the amount of venture capital that has poured into related ventures. We are in a good position to be the leading e-country. However it is essential that people are not excluded and that everyone has online access. I would say we are on target but have quite a way to go yet."
The UK's success will be measured in terms of internet use, internet penetration and business use of the internet.
Among the initiatives flagged by Brown was the scheme to enable individuals to submit and pay their tax online from April. And Allan is cautiously optimistic that self-assessment e-filing will be a big hit with the public. Nevertheless, he insists, the success of the initiative should be judged over time.
"It is a question of how quickly people take up the e-filing initiative," he says. "If nine million people file online instantly, then great, but realistically it will take time to build up. I believe the £10 discount is a sufficient incentive and in fact this method will make life easy for individuals, so maybe they should really be paying us an extra £10.
"In Australia they have a high take-up of online filing, but they got their initiative rolling early and are seeing the benefits now. The Budget is sure to throw up e-issues as it is becoming more and more inextricably part of what the government does."
Overcoming legislative hurdles
European law is another area identified by Allan as one that needs further attention. He points to the fact that in the US, startups can trade across different states and create a large domestic market easily. He wants to see this replicated within the European market.
"In Europe it is hard to trade across the whole state as there are all sorts of strange regulations which need updating to encourage cross-border trading and to ensure world beating companies can be set up in the UK," he says.
By also bringing in Patricia Hewitt as e-minister, Allan believes the government has shown it is serious about web technology and the business implications. The two seem to enjoy a good relationship and Allan adds: "We are lucky to have got her and I am extremely impressed with what she has done. We have a real job to do and are determined to deliver."
Time will tell if e-issues will really be a cause for the government to be surfing proudly or sinking down under.
From British High Commissioner to e-envoy
Alex Allan's brief is a wide one. As well as working closely with e-minister Patricia Hewitt, he also works alongside e-government minister Ian McCartney on the IT elements of the 'Modernising Government' White Paper.
Until last year, the British High Commissioner to Australia, Allan was previously principal private secretary to the Prime Minister from April 1992 to August 1997. Before that, he had spells in the Treasury including working as principal private secretary to Nigel Lawson during his time as Chancellor.
His involvement in IT also stretches back. As well as overseeing the launch of the first Number 10 website, he worked to get kiosks installed in consulates in Australia to help the public find information about the UK, particularly on passports and visas.
His email address is [email protected]
This interview first appeared in AccountancyAge.com on the 27 March 2000.
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