The New Statesman Interview - Alex Allan

At last, a government adviser who understands technology. Alex Allan interviewed

In Alex Allan, we've at last got somebody in a position of some influence and with direct access to the Prime Minister who actually understands technology. In fact, the government's e-envoy is so au fait with IT that he even has his own website (, where you can read Allan's diary and peruse his comprehensive collection of Grateful Dead lyrics. What better qualifications does a senior civil servant need to work on the government's internet policy?

But first things first: what exactly does an e-envoy do? Allan was appointed to the role earlier this year by Tony Blair, and his brief is to work closely with the e-minister Patricia Hewitt (the minister of state at the DTI) and Ian McCartney (the Cabinet Office minister), to help turn the UK population into fully functioning Generation-e citizens. The job is a big one. Not only has Allan been tasked with transforming Britain into the e-commerce capital of the world, but he also has to play his part in the process of making government more efficient by the use of new technology. Allan remains undaunted by the task ahead: "My job is about co-ordinating and getting other people to do things. I'm not taking on the management of every single government website and I'm not implementing huge new IT systems single-handedly."

The government's many and varied websites have come in for justifiable criticism; some of the sites are smart and professional, while others look as if they've been bolted together by a teenager in his bedroom. Allan is working on the problem: "Most of these sites started out as an add-on, and that meant very few resources were put into setting them up and some of them were rather unprofessional. A new division of the Central IT Unit has been set up to try to bring the worst government sites up to the standards of the best."

More seriously, the Observer recently reported that government websites were taking ads from big business in return for favours, in what seemed like a breach of the government's advertising guidelines. "There is clear guidance on the use of advertising in government publications, but the application of our existing rules to the web does raise some new issues. We're developing guidelines on what's appropriate. I don't think we should rule out advertising altogether, but we should make sure it's properly managed and doesn't compromise government impartiality," says Allan, in the government's defence.

The idea behind all this website development is eventually to open a two-way communication stream between the government and its citizens. When he came to power, Blair promised that, by 2002, at least one-quarter of all government transactions with the public would be electronic. But, at the moment, the information seems to be heading one way only, from the government to the citizen. True, we can now pay our tax bills online, but we can't yet sort out our council tax or vote on issues.

Allan recognises that this is one of his biggest challenges: "There are two major areas: one is getting transactions on the sites, which I'd dearly love to do; and the other is about making government accessible. But we are working on a central government website that we aim to launch in September. We've made a start in areas such as submitting your tax return online and, in the next year, you'll be able to search and apply for employment service jobs, or have your hospital appointment booked online while you wait in your doctor's surgery."

In the meantime, at least we can contact Allan directly via e-mail: "We've made a point of putting up our e-mail addresses on the e-envoy site, and I do read my messages. I was a bit worried by the flood of e-mails in the first few weeks, but it's settled down now."

The government's most serious attempt so far to regulate the internet is the planned Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill (RIP). The bill, which is currently going through the Lords, gives the police the authority to monitor our web and e-mail use, and plans to set up links between internet service providers (ISPs) and an MI5 monitoring system. The government hopes that these moves will protect the nation from cyber-terrorists and the willy-nilly distribution of illegal material over the net. However, to much of the internet community, the bill sounds like heavy-handed snooping. And the business community has weighed in with its own criticisms: a study commissioned by the British Chamber of Commerce claimed the RIP Bill could cost the economy £46bn over the next five years. Businesses are understandably worried that the bill will compromise the security of their systems. The Chamber of Commerce study also pointed out that new net businesses may choose to base themselves outside the UK because of the possible lack of confidentiality.

Allan is sceptical about the Chamber of Commerce claims: "Like Jack Straw, I can't swallow the figure of £46bn as an estimate of the cost to industry of the RIP Bill. I don't believe the provisions in the bill are a threat to the success of e-commerce in the UK. But there's no doubt that this is not an easy area to get right and the government needs to do more to allay some of the concerns raised. In response to the debate, both inside and outside parliament, the Home Office has made changes to the bill - and it's likely that more will be made before it becomes law. It will be impossible to satisfy everybody with the law that eventually emerges - but we must aim to introduce something that is a good balance between the need to promote e-commerce and the need to ensure that we don't make things easy for criminals and terrorists."

And it looks like the RIP Bill will need to be watered down to get through the Lords. Reports suggest that the Home Office minister Charles Clarke plans to restrict police powers to obtain information without ministerial consent, and that he may plan to charge ISPs for some of the costs involved in monitoring internet use.

One of the most ambitious of Allan's claims is that he wants to make the UK the world leader in e-commerce. Given the fact that the US is at least a year ahead of us when it comes to buying online, does he really think that he can transform a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of net entrepreneurs? Allan reckons that the UK populace are up to the task: "The technology is changing so fast that the fact that somebody else is ahead now doesn't mean that another country can't catch up. What we've got to do is make sure the government framework is there, but then it's down to UK businesses and industry to develop the innovative products. This is happening. There's a real buzz about the UK internet industry at the moment. In some technologies, we're really strong, such as mobile communications. We're also seeing the roll-out of digital TV, and that's a really important medium in bringing internet access to the homes of people who are comfortable with TV, but wouldn't dream of buying a computer."

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit