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Last Updated: Monday, 18 October, 2004, 07:09 GMT 08:09 UK
Whitehall shifts digital priorities
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News Online technology staff

As an ardent Arsenal supporter, the new head of e-government Ian Watmore is not accustomed to losing.

Ian Watmore, Head of E-government
Ian Watmore has challenges ahead
His football team is enjoying a run of undefeated games and he will be hoping he can emulate their skills as he takes grip of one of the most demanding jobs in government.

It is a very different post to that of his predecessor, Andrew Pinder. Gone is the title of e-envoy and much of the evangelising that went with it.

Instead of overseeing the public take-up of technology, Mr Watmore will instead concentrate on getting Whitehall's house in order as he heads up the government's new e-government Unit.

Useful transactions

It is a subtle shift and one that critics may argue is long overdue as news of government technology projects going vastly over budget or failing to work properly continue to hit the headlines.

Efficiency seems to be the buzzword in the new e-government unit and any projects undertaken in the future will need to have the government's drive to save money in mind.

Mr Watmore will now be overseeing all government technology projects, from the systems that calculate benefits and collect taxes to those that support public servants such as police and teachers.

It is a move away from his predecessor's preoccupation with pushing services to citizens and making sure all in society had access to technology.

No longer will his office concentrate on issues such as the digital divide. Instead there is a back to basics agenda which Mr Watmore sees as crucial.

"All of those information technology systems are just as important to government as putting things online," he told BBC News Online.

Despite his broad-ranging remit, he will still have responsibility for providing content that citizens want to use. He believes this is entering a new phase, as government departments reach their aim of getting all services online.

"The getting 100% of services online target is something I inherited and the job is pretty much achieved. The real question is 'where do we go from here?'"

The answer, he says, is moving on from the glut of information currently available to fewer and better targeted services.

"Let's make them as good as we can and, most importantly, let's move to the point where most people are using them rather than some people are using them."

Complicated relationship

The starting point for this will be the government's flagship website, DirectGov.

In some areas, we are just scratching the surface and need to get services up to the first million users
Ian Watmore
The website is seen as being a gateway to citizens and will increasingly be divided into what Mr Watmore dubs "citizen franchises".

So motorists or parents will have specific areas of the site where they can go and do business with government.

Getting the public engaged with government has been a tricky conundrum for Mr Watmore's predecessors and numbers visiting government websites remain relatively low.

Mr Watmore is hoping for millions of users in the future, although anyone expecting new services is going to be disappointed.

"I would not say that we are talking about rafts of new things. In some areas, we are just scratching the surface and need to get services up to the first million users," he said.

Persuading people to fill in their tax returns online has been one of the government's success stories and already a million people are using the service.

"With that service the point is to push it up to second and third million," he said.

He is realistic about the role of online services and the complicated relationship between government and the people it serves.

"To have a 'one size fits all' approach is not the right thing. There is an element of interacting with government that people want to do online and we want to provide that for them. But there are other areas where people will want to do it a different way," he said.

Fall guy?

One of the most controversial parts of his job is likely to be government plans for introducing a national ID card.

Man holding up a prototype ID card
ID cards have provoked controversy
"We would see ourselves at the centre of it, trying to tackle the challenge of citizens having multiple relationships with government and finding the right way for people to identify themselves," he explained.

For many the ID card itself is not as worrying as the database that the government wants to create to hold information about individuals and possibly be accessed by a variety of government agencies.

But that is not currently on Mr Watmore's radar.

"It is technologically impossible and is not today's big worry. Plans for how we share information is in the early days," he said.

As head of e-government, it is likely that Mr Watmore will be under fire when things do not go to plan, whether that be getting transactions online or the big technology projects which the government undertakes.

He has made it clear that he will not be the fall guy for individual failures.

"If a particular project were to go wrong the accountability for that would rest very clearly in the department concerned," he said.

"My accountability would lie in terms of have we bitten off more than we can chew in terms of overall projects? Are there too many projects of this type for the capacity and capability we have?"

These are questions he is likely to be asking himself repeatedly in the coming months.

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