Jane Wakefield: E-ambassador, you are spoiling us

Blair and Allan. Put your trust in these two giants of the e-age and you're sure to be just hunky dory. Jane Wakefield explains, as only she can...

The latest addition to the ever-growing army of e-government warriors has arrived in the corridors of power as a civil servant called Allan takes up his post as e-envoy.

While Alex Allan -- his previous job was High Commissioner to Australia -- adjusts to the change of climate and settles into his new role, it might be worth reminding ourselves what his duties will be.

Principally, he will be Britain's ambassador for e-commerce. Whether this will mean a series of glamorous receptions with trays piled high with Ferrero Rocher is not yet clear. What is clear however, is that as the UK's first e-envoy, he will be joining an already crowded e-government. He will work alongside e-Minister Patricia Hewitt and e-government minister Ian McCartney. Which means he will be the third member of a triumvirate of Westminster cronies determined to crack the e-commerce nut and make the UK e-friendly.

Why we need three e-commerce gurus in government is a question that Tony's clan has never answered. Some may point to that old adage "too many cooks spoil the broth" and cynically suggest that having three people in charge will just make it three times as easy to pass the buck. I have already experienced this, being pushed from pillar to post from the DTI to the Cabinet Office via the Home Office like some battered pinball.

Allan's vaguely defined ambassador role has led to some mutterings that his relationship to Tony Blair has more in common with Orville's to Keith Harris, than the e-commerce right hand man he would like to describe himself as. However, at ZDNet News we believe in giving a man a chance -- after all he has barely had time to put his new pencil case in his desk.

So what will Allan actually be doing in his new job apart from bulk-buying luxury chocolates and smoothing down his green feathers?

Well... he will be in charge of convincing UK businesses that e-commerce is the way forward. With a government report finding that only 2 percent of UK board directors believe that the Internet poses a serious competitive threat, he may have his job cut out with this one.

Allan will also be responsible for implementing e-government and in this respect he couldn't have taken up his job at a worse time. Prime Minister Tony Blair wants to see electronic delivery of all government services by 2008 but a series of damning reports have criticised the government for its slow implementation of IT projects and inefficient use of the Web.

In his first public appearance so far -- at ISPA's (Internet Service Providers' Association) parliamentary forum on Tuesday (which by the way I was not invited to) -- Allan claimed that e-commerce was set to have "a profound effect on business, government and consumers and on the way people live and work". He sung the praises of the e-communications bill -- which after a disastrous start has generally been accepted by industry -- and also patted the government on the back for successfully pressuring BT into finally offering unmetered Net access to consumers.

Whether Allan will add to the success story is not clear. He has already admitted that he has no control over Oftel (And with Oftel claiming this week that they had no control over BT, it would seem the telco has free rein) but in his favour he does have the prime minister's ear -- having previously worked as his principle private secretary. Industry watchers will be hoping he bends it on a regular basis, proving he has real clout rather than being another government stooge.

To prove how keen he is to talk to industry, Allan has set up his own Web site with his very own chatroom -- dubbed the e-forum -- in which he invites the public and business to talk to him about e-commerce. A spokesman for the Cabinet Office was unsure how often Mr Allan will be checking the site but claimed it would be "monitored regularly".

Personally I can't wait for my invite to the e-ambassador's first party. Ambassador, you are spoiling us with your e-policies.

In the interests of cementing relations between industry and government, ZDNet has requested an interview with the e-envoy, so feel free to write in with questions for Mr Allan. We'll be sure to pass them on when we get our gilt-edged RSVP.

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