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E-government could cost 800,000 jobs, says e-envoy

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The achievement of the UK government's target of putting all services online by 2005 could cost 800,000 public sector employees their jobs, according to e-envoy Andrew Pinder. And although that's a fifth of the public sector headcount, Pinder says that as half of the total are in jobs delivering services that can't easily be e-liminated (nursing, for example), it's actually 40 per cent of the rest who could be replaced.

Pinder's claims, spotted by Steve Ranger of Accountancy Age during last month's Microsoft-sponsored Government Leaders Conference in Seattle, represent something of a blooper. The official line, insofar as there is one, is that the drive to deliver e-government to the UK simply means the provision of web-based services in addition to current ones, not their replacement. Pinder however told delegates that the savings could be achieved by "turning off other channels," which quite clearly does mean replacing current services.

Peter Friedman of support and training site SupportInsight notes a previous pledge from the e-envoy's office that e-government will be supplemental, but it's clearly unsustainable that it will be entirely so, if the great experiment succeeds. Obviously, if for example we're all going to want to deal with the Inland Revenue online, then the Inland Revenue won't be needing all those office. But it must be a worry to Inland Revenue staff that Pinder already seems to have a fairly clear idea about how many of them we won't be needing.

The e-envoy's office is keen to maximise take-up of online government services by the public, but is not thought to have been wildly successful in this so far. In the name of open government it issues updates on progress on its various projects, but these are somewhat enigmatic. If, for example, we take the objective of "Getting Government Online," then look at section 16, "Ensure there is a strategy, with a measurable baseline, to maximise take-up of e-services," then on to 16.2, Develop and implement realistic take-up targets for online services," we get this:

"Report: This is being addressed through e-business delivery plans which departments are developing in negotiation with OeE in January and February 2002.
"Status: On track."

That's it folks, read it here, or plough through the whole pile of meaningless check-marks from here if you don't believe us.

Two of the many things you can't figure out from this are what the e-envoy's uptake targets are or whether he's achieving them. His Seattle words do however provide some sort of target. If, as he says, he reckons the job savings could be made over a period of ten years, then he's anticipating that substantially over half of the public will be using the web for electronic services by 2012-15 (depending on where you start counting). These figures, he said, are based on "what the private sector can achieve," although he doesn't specify which parts of the private sector have engaged in an e-xercise quite so large-scale and widespread. Amazon? Does that count?

Naturally even shedding 20 per cent of all government salaries wouldn't result in a flat 20 per cent cost saving. According to Pinder some of it could be ploughed back into the "front line" services such as health and education, and some on the provision of more efficient services (more ruddy computers, we'd hazard). Just don't tell the chancellor. Or indeed, the public sector unions. ®

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