Getting the UK Online: Driving Forward the E-Commerce Vision

August 31, 2000

Alex Allan, the Government e-Envoy, knows that e-commerce has fast become a valuable tool for all sectors – business, government, voluntary, and media – and is indispensable in many areas. He expands on the Government’s vision for e-commerce.

In talking about e-commerce, we should take it in its widest sense to mean the flow of information across electronic networks. This makes it the essential ingredient of the information age we are living in and the driving force behind the remarkable changes we are witnessing.

The rapid advancement of information and communications technologies means massive growth in the possibilities for e-commerce. We are seeing great forward movement both in terms of what the technology itself can do and in the numbers of people the technology is reaching. The UK’s leading-edge digital TV industry, for example, is a vital component in not only improving the performance of these technologies, but also making them more accessible for users.

The Government wants more UK businesses to profit from the sheer efficiency savings which imaginative e-commerce opportunities offer, and sees for itself a role in encouraging the UK to take up the challenges and build on the UK’s advantages in key areas, like the development of digital and mobile technologies. The Government’s vision is to make the UK the best place in the world for e-commerce.

Getting the Message Across – the Government’s Approach
The uniqueness of e-commerce means that a new approach is needed to achieve our aims. This is why the post of e-Envoy was created, and I am working jointly with Patricia Hewitt, the e-Minister, to deliver this approach. We report on progress every month to the Prime Minister and also post monthly updates on our Web site (

The private sector is key to the future of e-commerce, with the government focusing on getting the environment right so that it can flourish. We are working in partnership with business to encourage awareness at all levels of business and society. We are ensuring the flexibility to cope with the speed of e-commerce by minimising regulation and using co-regulation, where industry self-regulates within government-defined public policy objectives. A particular success in this area has been the TrustUK scheme, an industry-led digital hallmark initiative which is being copied worldwide as a way of promoting consumer confidence in e-commerce sites. Trust UK helps to maintain Internet standards by putting in place a disputes arbitration service and a mechanism for policing its standards.

Our priorities are, first, to get flexible national and international markets right so that businesses carry out a higher percentage of transactions on e-commerce networks. Second, to equip people and business with the skills to use the technology effectively and the ability to access e-commerce networks easily and at low cost. And third, to transform public service delivery to give us leading edge government.

The Right Framework
Getting the markets right includes promoting competition in, for example, the telecommunications industry. We are breaking down legal barriers and working to establish frameworks fore-commerce transactions locally, nationally, across Europe and globally.

Domestically, a light regulatory touch is our priority, but there are areas where Government realises that it needs to take a firm lead.

The Electronic Communications Act, which became law in May, is one example. It acts as a spur to e-commerce by taking the necessary legislative step of giving digital signatures the same legal significance as written ones and by enabling government departments to revamp old legislation in the light of this, making written procedures electronic.

The telecommunications infrastructure is a second example, where OFTEL is taking a strong lead in ensuring open competition across the market as BT opens its local loop to other users, and where the radio spectrum auctions are opening the potential offered by wireless to new markets.

It is all very well working on the domestic framework for e-commerce, but the Internet is a global tool which means that we also need to work internationally on standards and systems which are interoperable. At a European level, the eEurope Action Plan was agreed by Ministers at Feira in June, which sets out the steps we are taking to make Europe an e-commerce hub.

We need to be aware that it is in all our interests to work together to make the e-commerce market truly global. This involves finding alternative means to resolve disputes through organisations which can mediate between different tax and legal systems; as well as harmonising successfully with legislatures like the US, where different standards apply in, for example, the field of data protection.

Confident Users
However tempting a framework for e-commerce may look, we still need to create an IT-confident population to drive demand and use the opportunities. We are equipping people through initiatives which reach businesses and consumers.

Our key priority on an individual level is to make the resources accessible to everyone in the country. On 1 March, the Prime Minister made a commitment to ensure that everyone who wants it will have access to the Internet by 2005. Access will be in the home through a personal computer, Digital TV or games console; on the move through a mobile telephone or at a nearby public access point. The Government is leading initiatives to nurture individuals’ access and skills which include connecting all schools and libraries to the Internet by 2002; providing 80% discounts on basic IT courses; tax breaks for companies that loan computers to employees; and a nationwide network of IT access centres. We are also directly encouraging individuals to take up e-commerce opportunities through initiatives like the discounts offered on tax returns filed over the Internet (announced by the Chancellor earlier this year) and providing cut-price computers to families on low incomes.

More widely, the Government has set up the Department for Trade and Industry-led Information Society Initiative to establish a national network of local support centres as well as offering targeted advice to individuals and businesses. The University for Industry will be launched later this year by the Department for Education and Employment. It is developing online support and learning materials for consumers and users, which will be available at home, in the workplace and in UfI centres. In addition, we have just launched a new partnership with key National Training Organisations to drive through measures to give Britain the skills and confidence to be an e-commerce world leader. The initial raft of initiatives announced includes boosting the image of IT careers, a new skills strategy and a new system to collect labour market intelligence.

Putting the Words into Action – Information Age Government
The Government certainly does not exclude itself from streamlining itself by using e-commerce. I am working with Cabinet Office Minister, Ian McCartney, to deliver information age government.

The needs of the people of the UK – our customers – are foremost in our plans for e-government, making sure that we can deliver the information and services that everyone wants, at a time when they want them. Later this year we will also launch a groundbreaking facility, UK online, which you will be able to use to access a wide range of Government services, personalised to your needs, through a single point of entry.

The e-government strategy sets out how we aim to transform public service by our target date of 2005, when we aim to have all Government services conveniently available online. Several of them already are. Just a few examples are the health care advice you can get from NHS Direct Online; the travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and self-assessment tax returns to complete (and get a discount for returning electronically) from the Inland Revenue. In the next year, you will be able to search, and apply for, Employment Service jobs or have your hospital appointment booked online while you wait in your doctor’s surgery.

Meanwhile, we have opened the e-Forum, a discussion page on the e-Envoy Web site, so that we can keep in touch with everyone who is interested ( I hope you will use this to feed in ideas about what more we should be doing to help Britain make the most of the opportunities presented bye-commerce.