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SPOTLIGHT ON: UK Online - Govt bodies struggle to keep pace with internet revolution. Labour's UK Online venture has plenty of catching up to do, Deborah Bonello writes

Webmaster-general. Sounds kind of grand, doesn't it? Lucian Hudson, the ex-head of programming at BBC Worldwide, has been the proud bearer of that title since last week - his appointment is another building-block in the growing mass of promises that is UK Online. Hudson has been charged with ensuring that the Government has an impeccable online presence, and will have a leading role in developing an offline strategy that will drive those people remaining 'unwired' to adopt the web as part of their everyday lives. No small task.

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Webmaster-general. Sounds kind of grand, doesn't it? Lucian Hudson, the ex-head of programming at BBC Worldwide, has been the proud bearer of that title since last week - his appointment is another building-block in the growing mass of promises that is UK Online. Hudson has been charged with ensuring that the Government has an impeccable online presence, and will have a leading role in developing an offline strategy that will drive those people remaining 'unwired' to adopt the web as part of their everyday lives. No small task.

Blair's government has done little to hide the fact that its relationship with the web was not love at first site. However, our prime minister has vowed to change this, promising to make internet access universal by the end of 2005 and to get the remaining two-thirds of government services that are not yet available online accessible via the web by the end of the same year. This will be fronted by a government portal - in development right now - intended to give people one point of access to government services.

'The whole point of the UK Online portal is to be a simple, easy way to access all of the Government's services online, and users will be able to customise the site according to the services they use most frequently,' Hudson says.

This is a serious challenge for Hudson. Seventeen years as a journalist in positions as prestigious as the news editor for BBC World and senior producer for the BBC's Nine O'Clock News have loaded his gun in terms of media and managerial experience.

His mission is two-fold. First, he has to convince the British public to venture on to the internet and encourage them to access the Government's online services. At the latest count, the internet research company NetValue found that 7.4 million households in the UK are connected to the web, with around 10.1 million regular internet users per month. That leaves the UK with more than 16 million households yet to get plugged into the big wire in the sky.

Tackling the sociological and economic problems fuelling the digital divide is probably more important at this stage than overcoming people's scepticism in regard to using the web - the advertising task of which has fallen to Ogilvy & Mather.

There will always exist that hardcore group of sceptics who will not, under any circumstances, use the internet. And while the TV and video recorder are perceived as household necessities by all, PCs are not - at least, not yet.

Derek Wyatt MP, chairman of the All-Party Internet Committee, said that Hudson's appointment is badly needed: 'Three years ago, I suggested that we give everyone a computer instead of building the Dome. I stand by that.'

The second part of Hudson's brief is to demystify the Government's presence online which, at present, is a confusing array of departments and access points - all with their separate URLs. There are around 150 government services available online, and Blair has vowed to increase that to more than 450 by the 2005 deadline.

Wyatt is unforgiving about the Government's online initiatives to date, saying that its hundreds of sites aren't updated every day and that some haven't been amended for more than two months.

Richard Dinnick, the new-media director of the web agency Reading Room, was one of the judges of the Government's internal website awards late last year, where external observers picked what they deemed to be the cream of the crop of the Government's sites.

He says: 'There was some good stuff going on. The Number 10 site started off with some great intentions. But it gave away the fact that they didn't understand the legal restrictions of the web. They put up a forum that was regulated only at certain times in the day and, therefore, resulted in a lot of defamatory posting about MPs and the like. The noble intention of a weekly webcast from the PM fell apart after a couple of months.'

Dinnick thinks that funding and resources are, unsurprisingly, the major problem. 'Initiatives are fine, but unless you back them up with resources, they're not going to be much cop. It's not brilliant but at least they're trying.'

At least they're trying? Hudson's appointment is confirmation of the fact that we should be able to expect more.



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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