15 February 2001
Andrew Pinder's appointment as e-envoy is to be welcomed. But, asks David Arminas, will he be able to reconcile the disparate aspects of the job?
The official appointment of Andrew Pinder as the government's e-envoy was greeted with almost universal applause in the public and private sectors. His pedigree in director-level IT jobs includes 18 years at the Inland Revenue, in the financial sector with Citibank and Prudential, and new technology start-ups. This makes him eminently suitable for such a high-profile Cabinet Office job.
Pinder will report directly to Tony Blair on making Britain the best place in Europe for e-commerce by 2003, a plan originally floated in a 1998 white paper from the Department of Trade and Industry. These ideas were fleshed out the following year in email@example.com, by the Cabinet Office's performance and innovation unit.
Pinder became acting e-envoy in October, replacing Alex Allan, who left for personal reasons. There was dissatisfaction with Allan's performance, but also with the job description itself. The government already has an e-minister, Patricia Hewitt, and a minister for e-government, Ian McCartney.
For Alan Boxer, managing director of independent advisory group e centreUK, the e-envoy's job encompasses two potentially incompatible roles. First, there is the e-government role to implement e-commerce within government departments and agencies. Second, there is the messenger-type role, spreading the e-commerce gospel.
Jim Norton, head of e-commerce policy at the Institute of Directors, author of the 1999 report and former e-envoy candidate, agrees. He hopes that Pinder will be less of an implementer of projects and more of a project manager.
The Cabinet Office says the e-envoy's role is to "galvanise business to face the challenges of e-commerce, provide input to the development of e-government, promote Britain's e-commerce strategy abroad, and ensure benefits of e-commerce are spread throughout society".
In the public sector, the e-envoy is to push more government services on to the Internet as defined by the UK Online initiative. These include electronic tax returns, voting and general access to data for members of the public. About 40 per cent of government services are now online, and the target is to make all services accessible electronically by 2005.
There are also government-to-business services and Pinder is expected to work with the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the government's main procurement agency.
For purchasers and suppliers to government alike, the e-envoy's relationship with the OGC will be of greatest interest, as the agency seeks savings of £1 billion by next April on the government's annual £12 billion procurement spend.
Last autumn, Allan acknowledged doubt over the attainability of the OGC's target for the government to buy 90 per cent of its low-value routine goods electronically by April 2001 - the agency's first anniversary.
E-commerce, including e-procurement, remains a hard nut to crack, according to a joint survey soon to be released by CIPS, the Institute of Logistics and Transport and the Institute of Management. Only 25 per cent of respondents were procuring online. In the private sector, big blue-chip companies start e-procurement because they have the money to invest, but the cost hampers efforts by smaller firms, although take-up is rising as costs fall.
E-procurement adoption by companies seems to be slowing down as they seek detailed business cases from solutions providers and e-marketplace operators. The OGC, for example, cancelled its major e-catalogue project last year, saying it wanted more business information.
But the first hint that Britain is on the right track is found in a recent survey, commissioned by delivery firm UPS. More than a third of European managers believed Britain was the best place to do e-business. But major concerns linger over issues such as the security of information.
Pinder's detailed knowledge of IT should go down well with purchasers, according to David Mannion, principal e-business consultant at ICL e-Business Services and a member of the CIPS e-commerce group.
Purchasers may wish to measure the e-envoy's effectiveness by how he influences policy initiatives on issues such as Internet payment security, confidentiality of information and police access to encryption codes.