Ever wondered what happens to old hippies? The answer seems to be that nowadays they become e-envoys.
Following on from Grateful Dead devotee Alex Allan, who set up his own website eulogising the archetypal Californian 1960s band, the government has now appointed Bob Dylan fan Andrew Pinder to the high-profile post.
Whenever Pinder finds himself trawling the internet for fun, his favourite site is bobdylan.com. This is apparently the ‘essential’ website if you want to know all there is to know about the ageing and one-time radical folk singer.
Indeed, despite a distinguished career in Whitehall and the private sector, there is something about Pinder’s appearance, scraggly beard and John Lennon-style glasses, that hints at a life beyond work. But Pinder may find his chances for a carefree surf of the net considerably restricted over the next few years.
Public service transformaion
His recent appointment makes him responsible for delivering one of the central aims of New Labour’s modernising agenda – putting all 457 government services online by 2005. If the Blairite transformation of the country’s Victorian public services is symbolised by one aim, it is this.
As well as achieving that, Pinder also has the task of helping make the United Kingdom the world leader in e-commerce.
It is a big task. Although the UK is undoubtedly a world internet leader, ahead of nearby competitors such as Germany and France, reports over the past six months or so have claimed this position may be threatened by a combination of government complacency and inactivity.
Barely a week passes, it seems, without criticism of the government’s approach. The gap behind pacemakers such as the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Australia, it is feared, could widen. If it doesn’t, and even narrows, Pinder can ultimately take the credit.
As well as the responsibility of delivering a main plank of government policy, he will also have to cope in a post that has been openly derided, its need questioned and, perhaps uncomfortably for a former Whitehall apparatchik, being thrust centre stage into the limelight.
There is little doubt if things do start to go wrong, the ‘internet Tsar’ will become a figure of fun for the media. He fully expects to be ‘held with my feet to the fire’ over the next three years. Despite this, Pinder, 53, arrives at his desk with optimism.
‘I think we are doing quite well. Most departments are on course to get their existing services online by 2005.’ His main task, he says, is to ‘provide a focal point’.
‘There’s a lot of diverse activity across government and the private sector. Someone has to raise the profile,’ he says. A task, he adds, made much easier because of his predecessor’s profile.
Certainly the potential is there. The e-envoy’s annual report at the end of 2000 showed 33% of government services are already online. The number of households on the internet had almost doubled, to 25%, in one year. There had been a fourfold increase in online spending, to £2bn, and 90% of the country’s employees now work in businesses that are connected to the internet. In the United States the comparative figure is 93%.
And, in December, the government launched the UK online citizen portal, www.ukonline, which connects all government departments and agencies and allows anyone to take part in policy discussions as well as providing advice on a series of ‘life episodes’ such as dealing with crime and moving house.
Realising the UK’s potential
An Economist Intelligence Unit report, produced in May last year, rated the UK the sixth most e-business ready country in the world, and second in the rankings for creating an e-business environment.
Already, company financial returns can be paid online; passport applications can be processed through the internet; you can check to see if you need hospital treatment and search the Land Registry for prospective properties.
Now it is Pinder’s job to translate that potential into something concrete.
His appointment though, announced at the end of last month, came as somewhat of a shock. Although he stepped into the breach last October once Allan decided to leave the post because of his wife’s ill-health, Pinder was still seen as an outsider for the e-envoy job, especially as he had never originally applied for the post.
But the quality of the 100-plus other candidates caused concern to ministers and from being a rank outsider Pinder emerged, Foinavon-like, as a front-runner.
He is seen as a safe pair of hands and brings what he calls a ‘fairly well-rounded set of experiences’ into the job.
Pinder has extensive experience of both the public and the private sectors. He spent 17 years at the Inland Revenue where he started out as an inspector of taxes and became director of the department’s IT division. After leaving Whitehall, he worked for Prudential, Citibank, a venture capital firm and internet start-ups. He also runs his own website, will register.com.
But although the final details of his e-contract are still being worked out, the 53-year-old will remain in his post until at least 2004.
Then there will be an option to extend for a further two years, if all goes well, beyond the all-important 2005 deadline. Salary will be in the region of Pounds 127,400 per year and Pinder will also face performance targets though these are still being thrashed out.
Pinder’s immediate goals
He has three immediate aims, two outside government involving raising skills and access to infrastructure and one within, regarding the work of individual departments.
‘There are three major areas that I am interested in. We have to get the infrastructure right, getting the fabric of society wired up as it were, then ensure wider access, making sure the digital divide doesn’t open out. Then there is the 2005 target. Over the next two or three months we will be talking to departments about the next round of their e-strategies.’
This last point could prove the most exacting. Departments will be benchmarked by the end of next year also when they will be expected to have around 70% of services available on the net.
All government departments were required to publish their e-strategies by October last year and these have to be updated every six months. One of Pinder’s first tasks will be to assess how well these strategies are being developed. Clearly, some departments, such as the Inland Revenue, are doing better than others.
‘The big question is, are they doing it in a creative enough way? The departments have obviously thought about it and they are working on it,’ he says.
‘I think in any big organisation like government, you get the whole range of people doing things at different speeds. So undoubtedly there are departments, or aspects of departments, that might move faster.’
Shrewd political background
Asked which departments he thinks are failing, Pinder reveals the strength of a Whitehall background.’Obviously I am not going to talk about that now,’ is his short answer. A main area of focus will be getting the major departments’ online services – Customs & Excise, employment, social security and the Inland Revenue – up and running properly.
‘I am pretty confident. What we clearly need to do is focus on those targets that are of major importance. I am going to be bothered about the major services, the big ‘high street departments’ which affect most people’s lives and which people access millions of times a year. Those have to be the areas that I focus on first. The way you get the usage up whether it is in the public or the private sector is by making the service easier than doing it any other way.’
One place where that added value might be used first is through digital transactions. Finance is a crucial area for Pinder in the development of decent, sustainable online internet services.
The accountants’ role
‘One area that is particularly of interest is the issue of digital certificates. In order to secure transactions that involve privacy, real privacy issues of the nature of tax transactions or getting money paid to you from the state – or indeed e-commerce transactions of a high value – you need to have digital certificates in place,’ he says.
Accountancy’s role in developing this digital role is crucial, he says. ‘We are just starting to see the first digital certificates emerging. The accountancy profession potentially can play a role in helping to get those out there.
‘It seems to me that the professions, particularly the accountancy profession, have the in-depth knowledge and the individuals to be the sort of people who could actually issue the certificates.’
Pinder says he has already had informal chats with the ICAEW, something he will be following up very soon. I really want to push [the ICAEW] quite hard. I see no reason why it shouldn’t be an issuer of certificates through its members.’
The UK government hopes to save Pounds 3.7bn by switching more services to the net. A further task will be to oversee the work of the three key groups within his remit; e-government, e-commerce and e-communications.
Some of the work introduced over the next three years may replicate what is happening in American states such as Philadelphia and Georgia who are seen as leaders in using the net to deliver services.
Already, American citizens can obtain passports on the net, a driver’s licence, and even a dog licence when shopping in the mall by using one-stop internet shops.
The UK still has some way to go to match that. If it does eventually do so, Pinder knows he will have gone some way to fulfilling his job specification.
He will stand or fall on his, and his department’s ability to meet the targets set by the prime minister. The big date looming is 2005. If Pinder proves a success, it is a fair bet that the government’s targets will have been met.
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