The British Chambers of Commerce has launched a wide-ranging attack on the government’s e-business strategy, condemning its ‘distracting and irrelevant preoccupation’ with meeting targets for internet connection.
Showing little mercy for the government’s much-vaunted e-credentials, the BCC claimed setting targets for the number of companies going online was doing more harm than good.
It also criticised the slow roll-out of broadband access, claimed the DTI’s e-business advisers need better training and said Whitehall should reduce the number of its own websites to ‘more manageable levels’.
The BCC’s broadside came in a report by its own E-business Taskforce, delivered to e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander along with 10 recommendations for future strategy.
According to the organisation, its 135,000-strong membership – particularly small and medium-sized firms – will begin trading online only for sound commercial reasons and ‘not to meet artificial targets set by government’. The BCC said the targets should be scrapped, and UK business should be left alone to drive the e-commerce agenda ‘with the government assisting the process by not standing in the way and wasting precious efforts and resources on meeting targets.’
The report said one major way the government could help would be by getting the broadband bandwagon rolling. It said suppliers should be encouraged ‘by legislation if necessary’ to speed up the implementation of broadband services.
The BCC also said e-business and general IT skills among UK companies needed improvement, but questioned the ability of some elements of the government’s current training structure to deliver. ‘The taskforce registered considerable concern over the inconsistencies in the training of some accredited online advisers,’ said the report.
‘Businesses should have the right to the very best advice and information when making important investment decisions which will potentially affect their performance for years to come.’
Muddying the waters
The BCC asked the DTI to concentrate on quality, not quantity when creating websites aimed at helping companies trade electronically. ‘There are numerous websites and information points, all aimed at businesses, that the taskforce believes are muddying the waters rather than showing the way forward.’
Other recommendations included better measures to tackle cyber crime, extended capital allowances for IT investment and less regulation in areas such as data protection.
Government looks to grants for online boost
With the BCC’s criticisms ringing in his ears, e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander announced funding for four initiatives to improve online security – complete with the obligatory website.
The DTI and several partner bodies will hand out a total of £3m to IT research projects at the universities of Paisley, York, Manchester and UMIST. Alexander said academics at the four institutions are working on ‘cutting-edge’ IT security technologies, including complex data analysis and speech-recognition systems.
The University of York will receive more than £1m towards further development of its Fedaura pattern recognition software, a project already backed by several major IT companies including EDS and Sun Microsystems.
Manchester University’s Department of Computer Science will receive £700,000 for its Fair Integrated Data Exchange Services (FIDES) initiative. This aims to develop secure online e-procurement systems.
Alexander claimed the research grants would exploit the UK’s ‘world-leading’ status in developing advanced IT security technologies, all of which would help boost general confidence in online trading.
The projects form part of the government’s wider Management of Information programme, which is also funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Economic and Social Research Council and Qinetiq (formerly DERA).
Inevitably the DTI’s electronic security initiative also has its own website – www.securityatwork.org.uk – containing details of relevant technologies and products.