Electronic envoy is a Deadhead

8th October 1999 at 01:00
One 'very unusual' Whitehall mandarin will be helping to counter Britain's shortfall in IT skills for the millennium, reports Chris Johnston.

ALEX ALLAN is "a very unusual civil servant", at least according to Patricia Hewitt, the minister responsible for e-commerce. She is right: how many other Whitehall mandarins - he was principal private secretary to both Tony Blair and John Major - have their own website, let alone one dedicated to the Grateful Dead rock group?

After spending two years as Britain's High Commissioner to Australia, Allan has been appointed as the UK's first "e-envoy". His appointment, and the creation of Hewitt's role, are key planks in the Government's strategy to make Britain the best place for e-commerce - trading via the Internet.

Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, said recently that the take up of e-commerce is central to Britain's economic competitiveness: "If we can continue to be at the forefront of change, the potential benefits will be enormous."

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, also acknowledged that e-commerce and the Internet are "forces of change driving the future" in his Labour party conference speech last week.

Alan Milburn, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told delegates that "the Internet, e-commerce and the knowledge economy can become an engine not just of great prosperity but of great equality too".

Along with Hewitt, Allan will be responsible for making this statement a reality and driving forward the implementation of both e-commerce and electronic government. He will be charged with meeting the objectives outlined in the e-commerce@its.best.uk report published by the Department of Trade and Industry last month.

Speaking from Canberra, he admits the task will be a challenge but says he is very much looking forward to the job. Some civil service managers have yet to wake up to the potential of delivering government services electronically, but Allan hopes that "where there is a will there is a way" to progress.

But getting Britain on the e-bandwagon will require more people with the necessary skills, and the e-commerce@its.best.uk report points out that the UK faces significant skills shortages "both in terms of general levels of IT literacy and in terms of the higher-level professional skills required within the IT, electronic and communications sectors".

Allan says it is also worrying that many companies are dissatisfied with the level of their employees' IT skills. He believes the report's recommendation to set targets so that 90 per cent of school-leavers are accredited to Level 1 and 70 per cent to Level 2 in IT skills by 2002 is one way of remedying the problem.

Further education has an important role to play, as does workplace training. "It will be increasingly important in the future that people in the workforce have a high level of IT skills," Allan says.

The report also says that it will be necessary to devise a way of assessing whether these targets, when set, are being met. One option could be to include IT as part of wider key skills qualifications targets, and the Department for Education and Employment and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are working on this. It is also suggested that the European Computer Driving Licence could be used as a qualification for the Level 2 standard in the proposed new targets.

These targets are hoped to be in place by March, which is one reason why Allan is in daily contact via email with his new team in London, despite not officially taking up his position until January.

Allan's stint in Australia is his second - in 1983-84 he took a break from the Treasury, where he had worked since 1976, and became a computer consultant in Perth and Sydney in 1983-84.

IT is clearly an area of interest for him, which is why he is so pleased to have the e-envoy job. Although maintaining his own website that he set up about 18 months ago takes up "a ridiculous amount of my spare time", Allan says he enjoys the chore. Surfing the Internet also gives him a good idea of what technologies are being used on other websites and how effective they are.

The e-envoy is confident that Britain's history of innovation in telecommunications and broadcasting will help the nation in the e-commerce race. One issue Allan says needs to be addressed is increasing the range of choices for consumers to connect to the Internet, but new methods that provide much faster access will make this a reality: "I'm very optimistic."

"e-commerce@its.best.uk" report: www.cabinet-office.gov.ukinnovation1999ecommerce. Alex Allan's website:www.whitegum.com

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