Archaic PCs to blame for government e-commerce mess

The government has missed its first e-government deadline for departments to buy 90 percent of their goods and services online

An archaic computer system is to blame for the government's failure to meet its first e-government target of buying 90 percent of routine goods and services online by March 2001, HM Treasury has admitted.

Chief secretary to the Treasury Andrew Smith discreetly announced the government's failure to meet its deadline in a parliamentary question on the last day of the Commons session. "Recent measurements by the Office of Government Commerce indicate that at present approximately half of low value transactions are conducted electronically," said Smith on 20 July.

The Treasury confirmed on Thursday that only 52 percent of government departments are currently purchasing low value goods and services over the Internet, despite the fact that most government staff are equipped with Internet access from their work PCs.

"Most government departments have antiquated IT systems...some are ten or more years old," said a spokesman at the Office of Government Commerce. "It's not just a case of Internet access -- systems need to be put in place so that there is enough memory and a big enough hard drive [for these transactions]."

It is necessary for the government to have a specific audit trail in place before departments can begin to automatically purchase their goods online. "We can't spend tax-payers money willy-nilly -- the Bespoke management system needs to be in place first so that [online] transactions can run transparently and effectively," the spokesman added. He explained that the Bespoke system -- used for recording the exact products that public money is spent on -- had not been developed when the "aspiration" for getting 90 percent of government departments spending online was decided.

The Prime Minister's launch of his UK Online initiative stated the goal of making Britain "the best place in the world for e-commerce by 2002". He set the deadline for 25 percent of public services to be available electronically by 2002, and 100 percent by 2005. Blair has also pledged that Internet access will be available to everyone in the UK by 2005.

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