Since the Big Society is the logical consequence of the networked society, it follows also that local government CIOs are among the best placed to make it happen.
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That may be like giving Dilbert the keys to the city. But the big society will only work if local computing infrastructure is opened up. There is little community of the sort we romanticize about in coalition manifestos bar what can be bought or computer assisted. We have to give Dilbert the keys to the city.
Local CIOs are therefore being recruited as evangelists for the new wave, it became apparent at Socitm 2010, their annual conference in Brighton this week. They have the know-how. They are also among the few with instincts attuned to the principles of the internet politics.
Let’s assume for the moment the ConDem government has principles. Look for their roots and you will find them in Silicon Valley.
That’s where, remember, were formed the architectural principles that made the internet what it is: the centre devoid of intelligence, all processing done at the end points and not on the network, and common protocols assisting the free flow of information – the very nutrients of liberty, innovation, and pompous blogging.
This also happens to be the architectural blueprint of the Big Society. Not the Big Society you’re thinking of. Forget arthritic old ladies who have taken half a day getting dressed ever since budget cuts sent their home-help to the doll queue. Forget rain clouds over Birmingham and the Boys from the Black Stuff.
Think Californian sunshine, ashrams full of baby boomers, roller skates and network technology. And remember that most of the bedding for this Big Society lark was laid by, under or despite of Labour. Think, for example, how we can now have no doubt that the centre is devoid of intelligence.
Labour did also co-opt Web founder Tim Berners-Lee’s work on setting public sector data free so anyone could see or use it. And it started laying the communications infrastructure over which the public and third sectors will soon work more closely under the ConDem Coalition. Ditto the G-Cloud and open standards.
But there’s a significant difference between the ConDem and Labour flavours of internet politics. That’s performance management, a phrase as dreaded by internet techies as civil servants. Look up net neutrality to see what all the fuss is about among the former.
The principle dread is the same in both cases. It’s “the terror of the unannounced inspection”, as Rob Whiteman, managing director of LG Group, described it in Brighton on Monday.
Whiteman was relieved at the ideological shift in the governance of local government under the ConDems. Out go the old hierarchical performance measures, which had councils working hard to please their superiors to the detriment of their locales. In comes local accountability and the transparency that makes it possible.
In comes “peer review”, as Whiteman said. Or trabajo de equipo, as rescued Chilean miners might call it. Or solidaridad. That’s what the internet politics is all about. Peer review is how the internet is governed through ICANN. It’s how open source software is developed. It’s how social networks police themselves.
But don’t set the black fag flying just yet. Because as the Roma said to the gendarme, peer review isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Peer review is how democracy is supposed to work. But what we are seeing of the internet society so far won’t extend further than civil society. And what is freed up in civil society may just go straight into the money-making engines of unaccountable private enterprises.
For now, consider what former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Blair said to CIOs about this: we have heard how the public sector is “bloated, gold plated, and out of touch” – that’s how the current bout of public sector pollarding was sold to us; but what about the bankers?
Still, you’ve got to start somewhere. If the internet politics does take hold in local government then, as people in ashrams are taught to believe, it may bring about a bottom up revolution. Quangos are an encouraging next step.