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Wings Clipped @ No Extra Cost

Hard on the heels of last week’s estimate of the on-going cost to the taxpayer of maintaining the UK Online programme, comes the news that the Office of The e-Envoy is about to have its funding slashed by as much as 25% by the ever-so-prudent Gordon Brown. The cheerful Chancellor has, as we predicted, rather less money to spend on e-transformation now he has the cost of this month’s away game in Baghdad to worry about.

The Guardian has reported that The Commons public administration select committee will have grilled the cabinet secretary, Andrew Turnbull, over the relevance of the e-Envoy this week. Some opposition MPs will want to ask what became of the government’s promise of making the UK "the best place in the world for e-commerce" by December 2002 and this time the answer has absolutely nothing to do with John Prescott

The OeE has already suffered one re-shuffle, the last of these in June of 2002, when in among the victims a certain government advisor named Simon Moores had his “Wings clipped”. A reason for this was Turnbull’s decision that the e-Envoy’s responsibilities in the area of the 'e-Economy', which including broadband and the Electronic Communications Act, were to be ‘farmed-out’ to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Ironically, inside the ‘Army of the e-Envoy’, as some would describe it, there are people engaged in undeniably useful work in the development of standards. ‘eDelivery’ and central government systems. The problem has always been one of perception in that the media are far more likely to concentrate on the failures and delays rather than the achievements. I have to admit, that surrounded by the excitement of the Dotcom bubble in 1999, it was much easier for the fourteen disciples crammed into 70. Whitehall to feel less like civil servants and more like revolutionary anarchists.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men remain much the same even with the help of a budget of £17.4 million, in addition to a generous £30m allocated from the Capital Modernisation Fund. Official figures show that monthly numbers of individuals visiting the UK Online portal have fallen to just under 350,000 after reaching a peak of more than half a million in November 2002. Visitors to the site are fairly constant at around 100,000 per week for the last three months At the same time, the total number of pages accessed by visitors to UK Online has fallen 18.5% from over the last six months when the peak 170,000 visitors.

There is a sense among observers that the OeE is continually moving two steps forward and one step back. It remains very much dedicated to its twin goals of transforming the public sector and making this country the world's leading knowledge economy. However, I feel that vital pieces of the puzzle, such as authentication, are still missing and one element that disturbed me deeply two years ago was the shadow of political interference; the ‘string-pulling’ in what should be a civil service earning the eCommunications directorate the unhappy nickname of Pravda.Com.

What I did learn as an ‘Advisor’ is that advice isn’t always welcome or indeed wanted and neither are frank opinions if they fail to coincide with the political purpose. I believe that government has the right idea in the substance of what it’s trying to achieve through the OeE and UK Online but I also believe very strongly that the right leadership isn’t present, that a cut in funding will be catastrophic and that government needs to listen more to constructive criticism, if not from me then from others.

But you and I and even Clare Short, know that listening is not what government does best.

"Usage of the tax credits site is ramping, ukonline traffic is up more than 10 fold in a year, self assessment increased its usage and so on"

Read what Alan Mather, CEO - eDelivery at the Office of the e_Envoy has to say about cuts to the department and the traffic passing through UK Online in his own Blog, eGovernment @ Large


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