Headlines: February 6th, 1998

It may be the beginning of the end for those bulging files, tied carefully with tape and stored in repositories with loving care. Memos, report, requisitions could, theoretically, all be produced in electronic form before we arrive at 2002. The threat to cherished files has come from the successful conclusion of a pilot scheme to connect government offices to the Government Secure Intranet (GSI). The six pilot sites go live this month. A further 30 centrally funded organisations, including government departments, agencies and non departmental bodies, will be connected to the GSI in the next few months. The timetable then envisages a total of 60 sites connected by the end of 1998 and all sites connected by 2001.The advent of the GSI brings both opportunities and threats. The parallel development of other networks in local authorities, schools and the NHS will open the possibility linking the networks into an extranet. Add to this the fact that most medium to large companies have e-mail facilities and many smaller organisations are getting connected, and electronic communication quickly becomes a reality.

By effectively linking departments together, the GSI will support the move towards Better Government. The White Paper due in the Spring is expected to focus on a strategic change which will result in organisations no longer mirroring the administrative system, but mirroring the customer needs. The start up of a business now requires the same information to be given to Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and Contributions Agency. For the future a single notification to whichever is the lead department will be sufficient.

The opportunities for exploiting this communication revolution are enormous, but it also contains many threats. All those concerned with the paper, rather than the content, are facing a bleak future. Royal Mail and paper handlers within organisations will soon start to feel the effect.

The generators of the paper will need to manage their routines carefully if they are to avoid a backlash from their correspondents. The pace of business is, to a large, extent governed by the speed of communication. Replies to letters may not be expected for perhaps two weeks. With e-mail, the person at the other end may want to make three or four exchanges in the same day. Careful change management and stress relieving approaches will be needed.

Perhaps the greatest threat is security. People may obtain access to confidential information and the unscrupulous and criminal may forge documents. John Woulds, Office of Data Protection Registrar said: “We need to take care to protect privacy and ensure data is not used for purposes, other than those for which it was intended. The intranet would seem to provide a mechanism by which ordinary safeguards could be by-passed. In such a situation we would expect to be consulted in the development stages, but we have not.”