Martha Lane Fox, the government’s online access tsar, got a shock last week when No 10 axed her planned digital services unit. But she’s already busy trying to catch people’s interest in web access, she tells Anthony Alexander
Arriving at the Race Online 2012 team’s bright, trendy Soho loft studio for a long-planned interview with the team’s head, government digital inclusion tsar Martha Lane Fox (pictured above), I can find no sign of her. She is, however, ‘tweeting’: apparently she’s embarrassed to have been caught by an Evening Standard photographer going into Downing Street – she’s self-conscious about her limp, caused by a 2004 car crash. Then the phone rings: Lane Fox is in a taxi on her way back to the office, having had her first meeting with the new administration. As her taxi crawls through the West End traffic, we begin our interview on the telephone.
How did the meeting go? “The great news is that the PM wants me to continue to engage everybody in the country with using the internet,” says Lane Fox. So her main public job will continue, as the government’s digital champion. An online entrepreneur who co-founded www.lastminute.com, Lane Fox has worked since 2009 to improve public access to the internet. Her Race Online 2012 campaign hopes to dramatically widen internet access by the time of the London Olympics, encouraging and facilitating web use by the 10 million people who currently never go online.
Working through publicity, persuasion and charm, in just a few months Lane Fox and her team have signed up more than 270 private sector corporations and voluntary groups, which between them have pledged to get more than a million first-time web users online. These organisations will be donating old PCs and training people how to use them; the next step is to get local authorities, government departments and MPs signed up as active members in the campaign.
The disappearing unit
However, getting people online was only one part of a two-tier strategy initiated by Gordon Brown in December 2009’s Smarter Government strategy. In March, Lane Fox was appointed by cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell as an expert adviser on the formation of a new unit within Cabinet Office, to be called the Digital Public Services Unit.
This unit would, O’Donnell wrote to Lane Fox, “provide strategic leadership and direction across government on getting public services online”, as well as promoting wider public access to the web. Charged with “improving the transparency and quality of all government developments on digital services”, the unit was to bring together the government’s CIO council of IT chiefs, the digital engagement team and the Smarter Government online services programme; it was hoped that within three years, it would help to foster “radically increased digital public service delivery”.
However, this element of the plans has not survived the transition to a coalition government. As Lane Fox says, the unit “doesn’t exist”. While she remains the government’s digital champion, she explains, “the notion of a digital public services unit has been moved on”.
Of course, the government still has plans to develop its digital services; and on this, Lane Fox will still be providing advice – though her role is, she says, “still evolving”. Brown’s proposed unit, which was to have had – according to O’Donnell’s letter – the “structure, capability and strong financial levers” to force changes in departmental web services, is dead in the water. Nonetheless, a Cabinet Office spokesperson contacted after the interview is keen to emphasise that “the Cabinet Office is still very actively leading the work within government to drive forward transparency, digital engagement and better and more efficient government online services, supporting Martha Lane Fox in her role as the UK digital champion.”
1994 Graduates from Magdalen College, Oxford; joins Spectrum Strategy Consultants
1996 Appointed head of business development for Carlton TV Digital Channels
1998 Co-founds discount holiday website www.lastminute.com
2000 Becomes a founding trustee of prisoner rights charity Reprieve
2004 Involved in a serious car crash, requiring an extended stay in hospital
2007 Joins board of Channel 4 and Marks & Spencer, and founds Antigone: a grant-giving foudnation supporting small and start-up education, health and criminal justice charities
2009 Appointed UK digital champion and establishes Race Online 2002 campaign