NEWS FOCUS: After an abrupt departure from the NHS Information Authority, Nigel Bell claims to be having a 'really exciting time' at the government's Office of the e-Envoy.Lyn Whitfield finds out what he's trying to achieve

The office of the Office of the eEnvoy could be a metaphor for government computing.

Just as the public sector bolts new developments onto decaying legacy systems, it sits awkwardly on the sixth floor of a 1970s tower block showing signs of rather desperate upgrading. The 'atriumstyle' water feature cemented into the first to third floors is particularly strange.

And nothing gets done in this outpost of the Cabinet Office unless the forms are filled in. Two weeks after starting his job as assistant director, e-government, Nigel Bell is still wearing a visitor's badge, having missed a vital bit of paperwork. Still, he insists with boyish enthusiasm that he is having a 'really exciting time' - even though he is on a learning curve 'the shape of a cliff '.

Mr Bell's abrupt departure from the chief executive's post at the NHS Information Authority on 30 September raised eyebrows, since nobody saw it coming. He says he told chair Professor Alastair Bellingham that he was thinking of moving on 'a few months ago'. But changes to the structure of the NHSIA, involving the redundancy of another director, 'unsettled the organisation'.

After the annual general meeting - 'at which I uttered the immortal words 'I will look forward to seeing developments next year' - Professor Bellingham asked Mr Bell to clarify his position.

'I decided I would rather go fast and amicably, 'Mr Bell says. 'It was very abrupt. It was just six days, and I was on six months' notice.'

HSJ sources speculated that Mr Bell was frustrated by power struggles within government over details of IT policy.He rejects this.

But he was clearly frustrated by the Information Authority itself.

'[One] problem I had was how we handled risk. I did not have a problem with any particular system, but I was worried that it was risk-averse to the point of not getting to the point of delivering, ' he says. 'There was a lot of concern about mapping things out and documenting, instead of doing things so we could look and learn from them.'

Mr Bell was a consultant for Swedish drug giant Astra, where he was information systems and technology director for drug development. This sheds light on his problems with the authority.'I came from an industry background that was very high risk, ' he says. 'They do not sit in an office and think about how to solve cancer. . .They do a bit of that, then get out and do animal modelling, and then do tests on people, and all the time the costs are going up and the risks are going up. But You have got to do that.

'It seemed to me there was supposed to be a lot happening in the later years [of the NHS information strategy], but we could have done with some early deliverables to get some excitement going.'

Then there was the issue of money and 'buy-in' from the service itself. Last year, between 75 and 80 per cent of the money earmarked for NHS IT was siphoned off to meet other pressures.

Mr Bell says a quality health service would have to include quality decision-making, which would require quality clinical systems and access to patient records.Yet 'information was just not there in the health service in that sense'. Rather than being seen as part of the solution, he says, 'people saw 'e' as just another target - and that is why a lot of the money got diverted.'

However, he stresses that the NHS is not alone in its attitude. IT directors are also labelled as 'techies' and sidelined by business.

In his new job, Mr Bell is responsible for implementing the government's e-strategy in three priority areas - crime, transport and education. He may become involved again in the fourth priority area - health - but feels this would not be 'appropriate' at the moment.

Instead, he is looking at the strategies different departments have developed for achieving the government's electronic service delivery targets (all services to be online by 2005), how they have taken the 'end user' into account and how they fit together.

Mr Bell insists that 'exciting' work is going on. 'This department is trying to do what IT departments have wanted to do in business for a long time, ' he says.

'That is, get technology into everything that happens.Not just whizz-bang stuff - making a difference on the ground.'

An outsider might think sorting out NHS IT would be easier than getting the entire government online. Yet the former seems to have exhausted Mr Bell's natural enthusiasm.

Visitors leaving the office of the Office of the e-Envoy descend in the lift below the water feature. It gives an unnerving sense of descent into a very dark bog.

Delays ahead? the e-Envoy A year after its 1997 election win, the government declared that one of its many goals was to 'make the UK the best environment in the world for e-commerce'.

The Cabinet Office performance and innovation unit - then led by Peter Mandelson - launched a study to see how to turn this into reality, culminating in a report, ecommerce@itsbest .

One of its recommendations was the appointment of an e-envoy and e-minister to drive business use and get the government itself online.The Office of the e-Envoy followed in September 1999.

Finding a permanent e-envoy took a little longer, but Andrew Pinder was eventually appointed in January this year.

Mr Pinder has expressed some frustration with the attention given to the e-government half of his job.He told a recent conference that the 2005 deadline for getting all government services online was a 'real pain in the neck'.

Although 40 per cent of services were officially online in January, many of these are small fry.You can, for example, find out where the Highways Agency plans to place its cones.