Andrew Pinder has been charged with the task of bringing the government online by 2005, but the UK has some way to go to match the rest of the world.
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 1960s Californian 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 web considerably restricted over the next few years.
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 UK the world leader in ecommerce. 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 that this position may be threatened by a combination of government complacency and inactivity.
Barely a week passes, it seems, without some criticism of the government’s approach. The gap behind pacemakers such as the US, 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 that 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 but, despite this, Pinder arrives at his desk full of optimism.
“I think we are doing quite well. Most departments are on course to get their existing services online by 2005,” he said, adding that his main task 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 explained. A task, he added, 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 that 33 per cent of government services are already online. The number of households on the internet had almost doubled, to 25 per cent, in one year.
There had been a fourfold increase in online spending, to £2bn, and 90 per cent of the country’s employees now work in businesses that are connected to the internet. In the US the comparative figure is 93 per cent.
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.
An Economist Intelligence Unit report, produced in May last year, rated the UK the sixth most ebusiness-ready country in the world, and second in the rankings for creating an ebusiness 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 something of a shock. Although he stepped into the breach last October, following Allan’s decision to leave the post because of his wife’s ill-health, Pinder was still seen as an outsider for the 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 startups. He also runs his own website, will register.com. But although the final details of his 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. His salary will be in the region of £127,400 per year and Pinder will also face performance targets, although these are still being thrashed out.
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,” he said.
This last point could prove the most exacting. Departments will be benchmarked by the end of next year, when they will be expected to have around 70 per cent of services available on the web.
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 explained. “I think in any big organisation like government, you get a whole range of people doing things at different speeds. So undoubtedly there are departments, or aspects of departments, that might move faster.”
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,” he said.
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.
“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 ecommerce transactions of a high value, you need to have digital certificates in place,” he stressed.
Accountancy’s role in developing this digital role is crucial. “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,” he explained.
Pinder has already had informal chats with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (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,” he said.
The government hopes to save £3.7bn by switching more services to the internet. A further task will be to oversee the work of the three key groups within his remit: e-government, ecommerce and e-communications.
Some of the work introduced over the next three years may replicate what is happening in US states such as Philadelphia and Georgia which are seen as leaders in using the web to deliver services. Already, US citizens can obtain passports, driving licences, and even dog licences when shopping in the mall by using one-stop internet shops.
The UK still has some way to go to match that. But if it eventually does, Pinder knows he will have gone some way towards 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 of 2005 is looming. If Pinder proves a success, it is a fair bet that the government’s targets will have been met.
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