Time to get plugged in

The IT industry has released its own blueprint for an electronic future.

Britain will become a second-rate nation unless the Government invests extra money in information technology training and sets targets for the creation of an electronic society, the country's IT industry warns. In an unprecedented move, the Computing Services and Software Association last week launched an IT manifesto, which it urges all the political parties to adopt.

Philip Crawford, the managing director of Oracle UK, which is sponsoring the IT manifesto, says: "Two hundred years ago we did not aim to be number two. We got where we are today by being a nation of shopkeepers. Perhaps we should now aim to be a nation of electronic shopkeepers."

The problem begins in the classroom, the industry argues, where we are producing a workforce that is less skilled than our competitors'. "Teaching a student how to access information using IT is as fundamental as learning how to read," says Mr Crawford. "In employment terms, if you do not have IT skills you will not be able to do many jobs.

"What you see is talent going abroad, and British companies that go to the United States because they can't get venture capital here. Six per cent of UK venture capital goes to IT, yet it is the fourth largest industry in the world and the fastest growing. The Government must create an environment that stimulates IT companies. Ireland is doing this very well, and 40 per cent of US inward investment into European electronics is going there. They have an available skilled workforce, an infrastructure that is supportive, and incentives such as enterprise zones."

Rob Wirzwycz, the director general of the CSSA, says that political parties have not come to terms with the far-reaching impact of IT. The parties should realise that Whitehall itself must now be re-engineered, and the current departmental structure of government thrown up in the air and rebuilt.

"The structure of government is based on a report in the 1920s, which used a military model of command and communications," says Mr Wirzwycz. "The technology available then was different from that now, and the need for other structures now is clear. The Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of the Environment, the Department of National Heritage and the Cabinet Office are all involved in IT development, but who owns the process?

"We balk at suggesting that these departments should merge, but we think there is a need for a modular structure based on issues rather than on areas of responsibility."

Geoff Hoon, Labour's spokesman on IT, says he is sympathetic to this view, but is making no commitments. "We do have ideas we want to put into practice after the general election, but let's be realistic, we are not going to come in and say we are tearing up the existing departmental arrangements before we have even begun to use them. Certainly I think IT has a part to play in improving contact between departments."

Mr Hoon believes that the most important act that a Labour government could undertake would be to improve the IT infrastructure of schools and colleges, by ensuring that each has a broad-band communications connection and is equipped with modern IT terminals and software. He also wants to see a comprehensive retraining programme for teachers, to make them more IT literate.

Nigel Jones is not only the IT spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, he is also a former ICL software specialist. He stresses that the Lib Dems have not yet finalised their IT manifesto, but says they will have a commitment to a new regulatory regime for teaching that will include a requirement for teachers to be IT literate. He adds: "We need a far more interventionist approach, and that means money."

One option, Mr Jones says, would be to replace some of the existing millennium schemes with a project to equip each school desk with a multimedia terminal. That could be done, he calculates, at a cost of pounds 200m, which would be affordable. He also wants the Government to persuade the telecoms industry to provide broad-band connections to all rural areas, to prevent them being left behind.

Central to the criticisms made by the IT industry of all the political parties is the absence of vision. Government must set objectives, ensure that public buildings have modern multimedia terminals and bring the IT corporations together to help them form new co-operative ventures, the CSSA says.

Ian Taylor, DTI minister, argues that the criticism is unfair, and that the Government knows where it is going with IT. He points to the "Government Direct" green paper, and the Information Society Initiative, backed by a range of departments, and says that most of the industry's IT manifesto is in line with current government practice. Mr Taylor adds that it was a government initiative that created a joint venture with ICL to provide the country's first Internet directory, being announced this week, which will enable British businesses to win more trade electronically.

"The question is how can I stimulate where I see gaps in the market," says Mr Taylor. "I think we are doing that extremely well." He points to the "IT for all" partnership between the Government and leading corporations, including BT, the Bank of Scotland and the Woolwich Building Society, under which eight million leaflets will be sent out in the next few weeks, encouraging individuals to make better use of IT. The partnership could lead to a massive network of multimedia kiosks, run by the private sector, offering public services information.

Development of multimedia kiosks is recognised by all three parties as an important intermediate stage in providing electronic delivery of public services to all citizens. Mr Taylor makes the point that eventually digital television will open up the Internet for the majority, and provide interactive access to government services from the home. But until affordable digital TV arrives, it is essential that there is easy access to public information via kiosks.

A major division between the parties is how these kiosks will be funded, and where they will be placed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats want councils and the Government to provide kiosks in all major public buildings, from libraries to schools and colleges. They want public bodies to enter into partnerships with businesses, with the latter paying for them, perhaps on a sponsorship basis, while control of the kiosks is retained in the hands of public bodies.

The Conservatives, though, would like to see many of the kiosks run by the private sector, but providing access to government services through smart card authorisation. Mr Taylor envisages kiosks in bank branches and supermarkets not only dispensing cash and selling pensions and mortgages, but also allowing citizens to complete welfare benefits claims, or make planning applications to the local authority.

We might even be able to vote in future general elections while we are down at the bank branch making a cash deposit, says Mr Taylor. "We might start trialling electronic systems in a relatively few years time in polling booths. If we were to have a referendum on monetary union that might be a good time to test out people's preparedness to use electronic voting systems," he suggests.

Although few, if any, will vote in this general election on the basis of IT policy, Taylor predicts, the efficient use of IT can transform each service that the public will vote on, including education, health and even transport.

"There is no service that the Government now provides that cannot be provided electronically," Mr Taylor says. "Whether that is what the public wants, or over what period of time they wish to adapt to it is a matter that I cannot predict. But at least we can offer it"n

Industry's IT Manifesto

1. Provide IT training targets for adults and students.

2. Provide IT training for all teachers.

3. Allocate 1 per cent of the education budget to IT-based learning.

4. Further deregulate the telecoms industry to make broad-band access affordable to all by 2005.

5. Use tax policies to stimulate IT investment.

6. Facilitate a support network for hi-tech companies.

7. Provide a research forum for the exchange of ideas between industry and academia.

8. Establish a better regulatory structure for the IT and communication industries.

9. Resolve security, privacy, taxation and encryption problems.

10. Provide the electronic delivery of government services.

Endorsed by leading IT companies, including Oracle, Bull, CAP Gemini, Digital, CEC Marconi, Granada, KPMG, MDIS, NCC, NCR PA and Sage.

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