Both the voluntary and community sectors got their own government-backed internet help squad at the end of last week. 'E-envoy' Andrew Pinder announced the taskforce on Thursday night.
Non-profit organisations missing out in IT rush
The move is aimed at pinpointing reasons for the serious dearth of PCs in the voluntary sector, addressing issues such as lack of funding and training. Voluntary and community organisations have habitually lagged behind the commercial sector in adopting new technologies.
And the need to bring charities up to speed is becoming more urgent as the government shifts more and more of its services online. The government's target to get all its services online by 2005 has been scoffed at by cynics, but e-minister Pinder is still hoping to meet the deadline.
A report, Virtual promises – are charities keeping up with the internet revolution?, published in February by think-tank The Future Foundation, made apparent the need for change. It revealed a serious shortfall of internet-connected charities and emphasised the importance of the internet as a resource for the voluntary sector.
Though the report says there are more problems to be dealt with other than funding, financial backing is at the root of the proposals. The taskforce could give no clear description of how it planned to raise the money, other than to say it would be through third parties.
Nor will the Office of the E-envoy itself be responsible for funding. Instead it will use all research gathered for "consultation in the future".
Pinder said he welcomed the development of the taskforce "to galvanise the sector to make better use of internet technologies and act as a voice to the government".
"A vast majority of organisations are failing to achieve [their internet] potential," said Joe Saxton, member of the Future Foundation and co-chair of the taskforce. "We hope the taskforce can reduce the barriers to better use of the internet."
The number of UK businesses connected to the internet, 94 percent according to Department of Trade and Industry statistics, bears no relation to the number of internet-savvy voluntary organisations — around 67 percent, according to the taskforce's own research.
The report went on to highlight the ratio of employees to PCs in the voluntary sector at around four to one, which poses many access problems.
"We need to make it easier to get support, lower the cost of software to build appropriate websites and give relevant training," said the Future Foundation's Saxton.
Blame for the tardiness in revving up these sectors' IT education and adoption is shared between them and the government, said Saxton. "To date there has been no single and co-ordinated attempt to support the voluntary sector in its use of the internet," said the taskforce's report.
"The reasons why things haven't been done are many. Partly because the government is only just getting its own house in order and partly because the sector hasn't made its needs clear enough," said Saxton.
The taskforce will be working with the government to ensure the voluntary sector is at the heart of government policy on the internet, as well as working with local businesses to create sources of funding.