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E-Envoy backtracks on 800,000 job loss claim

The old 'out of context' gag...

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News junkies in the UK may have noticed the strangely slow-motion creeping barrage that's been engulfing E-Envoy Andrew Pinder over the past couple of weeks. At the Microsoft Government Leaders Conference in Seattle last month Pinder floated the notion of 800,000 civil servants losing their jobs as a consequence of e-government. Not many press at the GLC, so he was not torn limb from limb, as would have been the ordinary course of events back in the UK.

Not right away, anyway. The Register picked the story up a week ago, giving due credit to the Accountancy Age journalist who got the story in Seattle in the first place. The '800,000 for the high jump' story then dominoed through the press, who seem largely to have happily nicked the story and quotes from Accy Age without acknowledgement. It made the Sunday Times with scant embellishment on Sunday, and - uh oh - the Public Accounts Committee yesterday.

Pinder was up before the beak. According to Government Computing's Kablenet.com, Pinder pled that the quotes had been taken out of context. Apparently he was drawing a distinction between the public and private sectors, "the private sector could argue that you could take 20% out of the cost of staffing over 10 years but I went on to argue that the public sector is different to the private sector."

This distinction is actually rather interesting if you know a little about the arguments going on over the implementation of e-government in the UK, in the vicinity of the E-Envoy's office. There is most certainly a desire in there to achieve substantial savings, and there are numerous representatives of private sector companies in there arguing that the desired savings will not be achieved if the people in charge are not prepared to bite the bullet, take ownership and employ a more rigorously private sector approach. Pinder's words to the Public Accounts Committee therefore sound like the kind of fence-sitting they're objecting to.

But back to being out of context. Check the Accountancy Age link for all the quotes, and marvel at how these could possibly be out of context. This one really does look like a clincher to us: "You could take 20% out of the cost of staffing over ten years. I'm not saying we will save 20% because we may spend the money on more efficient services. That's what the private sector can achieve so we should be able to achieve the same in terms of freeing up resources."

The distinction between public and private there is entirely unclear to us. Cabinet Office permanent secretary Mavis McDonald gave the Committee the correct party line, that it was about improving public services and increasing capacity rather turning off channels, as Pinder said in an entirely different context in Seattle.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Edward Leigh expressed displeasure at Pinder's "wooly answers," observed than an E-Envoy ought to have this kind of information at his fingertips (old slogan, Ed - it's business at the speed of thought these days), and demanded more information about expected savings. So this one could run and run. ®

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