2000 Roundup: Government tries (hard) to get online

Blair wants us all online but we think it fair to say he needs to get some savvy chiefs in if his plans for 2005 are to come true

The government likes the Internet. Tony Blair is keen to see every home in Britain with affordable high-speed access by 2005. He wants to prevent a digital divide and finally -- taking the phrase lead by example to heart -- he intends to wire all government services by 2002.

Good intentions, but the reality has been somewhat different.

The year did not begin well as the government's own accountants accused it of squandering billions of pounds of taxpayers' money on obsolete or ineffective computer equipment in January. The government hit back with its usual excuse -- blame the Tories -- but promised to improve its IT management in future.

A week later the government launched its Knowledge Network project which it said would help streamline the civil service. Critics claimed the electronic information system was more about keeping Whitehall "on message" and some even questioned whether the Internet eliminated the need for a civil service altogether. Despite promises to put its IT house in order it emerged a few weeks later that the Ministry of Defence had wasted £30m on failed IT projects.

January was also the month when the e-envoy -- charged with sorting out e-government and making sure there was no digital divide -- made his first public appearance. Rather disappointingly, he told us that he wouldn't be able to do anything about the high price of Net access.

In February the e-envoy promised to drag Whitehall into the 21st century, saving the taxpayer millions and bringing hundreds of services online. In the middle of the month ZDNet News interviewed e-minister Patricia Hewitt. Although she obviously believed in the need for cheaper Net access, the minister was not prepared to criticise either BT or Oftel for their handling of Internet charges.

One local authority claimed the government was over-hyping what could be achieved and that "online" did not necessarily mean much. This seemed to be confirmed when it emerged that government departments had dumped email in favour of the old-fashioned fax machine, due to compatibility problems.

At an award ceremony intended to showcase the best government Web sites, civil servants took the opportunity to criticise e-government plans, blaming a lack of resources and personnel and claimed each department was being bombarded with e-initiatives.

Another damning report suggested the government was not doing nearly enough to close the digital divide. It accused the government of having no clear policy to tackle the divide, of throwing too little money at the problem and of setting up access points that were rarely used.

In April the e-envoy announced the framework for the delivery of e-government but two days later the leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, accused the government of underestimating the dangers of hacking in its rush to get online.

In response to criticism of its digital divide policy, the government announced a £10m spend to include free PCs to deprived areas.

During May the Cabinet Office announced 30 recommendations to improve government use of IT. There were suggestions that heads would roll if departments messed up the delivery of IT projects again. The Department of Social Security launched its "report a fraudster" Web site.

The e-envoy was off on his travels in June. During a tour of the US he warned the UK government to lay off the Net. Meanwhile, the government announced that the humble Post Office counter was about to become a hive of Internet activity.

More bad news for the government about the digital divide in July as the Office of National Statistics revealed that the information poverty gap was widening. Embarrassment for the Cabinet Office, as its Web site was defaced.

In August questions were raised about the safety of the government's flagship Web site NHS Direct as Health Which? accused the government of endangering lives.

The government was pleased to announce in September that it had wired 80 percent of primary schools and 90 percent of secondary schools. Educationalists were more sceptical, pointing out that the figures only meant that one PC per school had to be wired. This, they claimed, was often the school office PC meaning kids were often not actually getting onto the Internet at all.

E-envoy Alex Allan was also going offline. He announced he would be resigning at the end of the year to return to Australia. The government promised to find a replacement as soon as possible.

Prime minister Tony Blair went to Leicester in September in order to boost Internet use with the launch of the government's UK Online project. The cost of technology courses would be slashed, 6,000 IT centres would be set up in deprived areas, plus an injection of £1bn for e-government plans. Businesses failing to set up online were given a 15 month deadline. If they went over it they would not be used as government suppliers.

MPs' reaction to the new plans was lukewarm. Few believed the government would make its 2005 deadline for getting services online and over half claimed they didn't even have an email address.

In October it was the Chancellor's turn to talk about the digital divide as he reannounced the £25m spend to tackle the problem. People living in the Kensington area of Liverpool would be the first to benefit from the free PC scheme he announced, although it was not at all clear who was going to be paying for Internet access.

E-government plans appeared to be in disarray as Compaq withdrew from its role as infrastructure provider for the government's electronic gateway.

The digital divide reared its head again in November as it emerged that businesses were also experiencing an electronic divide, this time between North and South.

And finally, in December, the year ended with more embarrassment for the government as its UK Online portal, intended to join up all government services on the Web went offline, temporarily raising farther questions about how achievable the governments online plans were.

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