UK gets silver medal for e-commerce

e-Summit: The government may not have hit its target to make the UK the best place in the world to do e-commerce, but it says there is still plenty to be proud of

In 1998, the prime minister, Tony Blair, promised that the UK would be the best place in the world to do e-commerce by 2002. In 2002, it is in fact second. That's the official standing of the UK in the world e-commerce league, according to a report out on Tuesday.

While the government admits that it has failed on its objective to be number one by 2002, Tony Blair was keen to stress how much has been achieved since he made that promise four years ago.

Speaking at the e-Summit meeting in London on Tuesday morning, Blair said: "We are doing well, but not well enough. Over the next few years we will invest, as a government, £6bn in IT. We will radically alter access to IT facilities. But we have yet to grasp the full scale of the opportunities that the information revolution presents."

The benchmark report, prepared by Booz Allen Hamilton, puts the UK behind the US and narrowly ahead of Canada among the nine countries surveyed.

The UK government comes in for considerable praise for e-enabling many of its services, but is criticised for failing to get citizens to use them.

The report says: "In the rush to migrate services online, not enough consideration has been given to redesigning genuinely innovative services around the user. The resulting issue is that for those services which are already online, use remains disappointingly low."

Fifty-four percent of such services are now available online, but only one in 10 citizens have actually accessed them.

Blair said: "We aim to have all government services online by 2005, building on best practice such as NHS Direct Online and the university admission service. But we recognise that British businesses and citizens are not yet using government services online in the numbers that match the best in the world."

Accordingly, the government's 2005 targets now include take-up as well as delivery, Patricia Hewitt, secretary of state for trade and industry, said in a later speech.

The report -- which takes into consideration over 100 indicators when examining the 'e-economic' health of the G7 nations, plus Australia and Sweden -- also criticises the government's own use of technology, and the country's technology infrastructure, which it describes as 'less extensive' and of 'average quality' when compared with the leading countries.

It says: "The UK's modest level of infrastructure 'extensiveness' is driven partly by BT's past slowness to upgrade its exchanges and partly by cable operators' focus on urban areas. A recent government initiative to provide Regional Development Agencies with £30m to stimulate broadband deployment and uptake may have some effect, but this amounts to a set of pilot initiatives, and the investment amount is small compared to financial commitments made in other countries."

However, the government pledged on Tuesday to fund the rollout of broadband to every school in the country. As this will inevitably involve the upgrading of many local exchanges, broadband will indirectly become available to more of the population as a whole.

Blair concluded: "(ICT) is the transforming technology of our age. Its potential is still hugely under-exploited. Its capability to transform our business, public services and societies is immense. It is the key long-term economic and social challenge... This government is absolutely determined to meet the challenge and set our nation on a course to succeed."

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