E-commerce minister Douglas Alexander wants everyone to understand that he really is passionate about his brief. The boyish 34-year-old Scot has overcome the gibes about being a Gordon Brown acolyte who knew nothing about technology to the point where most IT industry figures see him as, at least, “a man we can do business with”.
He has the lawyer’s gift for advocacy and a politician’s enthusiasm. “If I sound evangelical about the potential of broadband it’s because I believe in it passionately,” he says. “Our biggest domestic policy challenges are creating a dynamic economy and a fairer society. To me getting Britain networked is a significant contribution to both.”
The problem is that, as ever with this Government, there is a perceived gap between what is said and what is done. Let’s be generous by assuming that the 2005 deadlines for global leadership set out by the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Trade & Industry Patricia Hewitt are an irrelevance. Freed from what the Government probably recognises as unwise hyperbole, what specifically has been achieved?
The Government has announced £30m backing for a number of regional projects. (Just to be clear this is the same money announced last year.) “This is recognition that actually there is very effective work taking place at a regional or local level already,” says Alexander.
“This is a means by which we capture good examples for public policy. If there is something that works well in Yorkshire, we want to be able to say it should be happening in the south-west or wherever else.”
It’s all very sound, if a rather small-scale project considering how far behind our global competitors we are – and it hardly touches the really big issues of patchy national infrastructure. But it is part of a grander scheme.
Public sector aggregation
The Government’s Big Idea is public sector aggregation. Add up the total government IT spend and it comes to £1.7 bn. If a significant proportion of that is committed to broadband it would be a tasty incentive for telcos to invest in infrastructure. It could, in conjunction with low-cost connections, translate into a genuine broadband Britain.
Computing has reported that the health service wants the NHSnet connecting all UK hospitals and doctors surgeries to become a high-speed network able to deal with big clinical advances offering, for example, online specialist advice or digital X-rays. But it’s a big leap.
“Aggregation has two dimensions – co-ordinating work within Whitehall and including work already taking place at a regional or local level,” says Alexander. But these two dimensions are barely scratching the surface.
The much-vaunted £1.7bn covers everything from spare keyboards to clinical software and no-one yet knows what proportion is actually for telecoms, let alone broadband-type networks.
And centrally co-ordinating the independent budgets of health trusts, education centres and local councils, as well as government departments, creates a logistical complexity we can barely imagine. Not to mention the usual shifting political agenda and controversial regulatory issues.
That’s not to say that aggregation is a bad idea or that it’s unworkable. Far from it. But industry will need to hear more than simply that there is £1.7bn just waiting to get the ball rolling.
Weights and measures
There need to be clearly defined measurements of what government is aiming for and what it is actually achieving. This Government has shown an almost obsessive propensity for targets and broadband Britain offers a multitude of potential measurements. But beyond the statement that the UK is already Europe’s best place for e-commerce, Alexander is reluctant to provide any tangible yardstick for his success: “It is my challenge to take forward work on a range of fronts and it seems to me intriguing if the focus is on 2005 and not on what we are doing just now.”
He seems to feel beleaguered – as if asking for clearly defined objectives is missing all the great work happening along the way. But this is not about point-scoring. And the purpose of targets is not simply to allow gratuitous hectoring from the press. This is about the future of the UK economy and industry needs a clear way of measuring the capabilities of those elected to take us there.
But give the lad a chance. There are worse things right now than someone talking up the industry in government. And Tony Blair does have other over-riding priorities to consider before the future of the country’s economy and our ability to compete on a global level … all those fox-hunters running the streets, for example.
DTI THE STATE IT’S IN
– The DTI has launched a consultation on draft regulations to implement the EU e-commerce directive. The directive is aiming to encourage e-commerce across Europe by breaking down barriers and increasing consumer confidence.
– E-commerce minister Douglas Alexander has revealed plans to push on the take-up of broadband across the UK. Several broadband projects have been funded by a £30m Government allocation, including a broadband town, “wired-up” business parks, high-speed links to schools and various trials of satellite and wireless technologies. All projects meet the needs of the areas they have been introduced in, such as providing SMEs in the south-east with broadband connections at reduced or free rates. Copies of the Government’s broadband strategy can be found at www.e-envoy.gov.uk/ecommerce/broadband/bbsgrep_menu.htm
– Patricia Hewitt has announced several schemes as part of a new Government strategy aimed at increasing the number of women employed in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET). Schools that set up “Computer Clubs for Girls” will receive free software from Macromedia, while Science and Engineering Ambassadors will go to schools and encourage young people, especially girls, to choose science and engineering careers. An online career advice website, IT Compass, will encourage young women to choose an IT career. www.e-skillsnto.org.uk/itcompass/