When politics meets IT: the gulf between the people and the techies

The technical press and industry lobbyists appear to be living on a different planet to most voters when it comes to assessing what the election will mean for on-line services and technology related jobs. The views of mainstream voters may come as nasty shock to those who have grown used to believing their own propaganda and expect end-users to be grateful for what they receive. The gulf of misunderstanding is likely to have significant implications, particularly if the next government is unstable and has to cope with a collapse of sterling and a sharp rise in public sector borrowing costs – leading to a choice between stagflation and yet more austerity – with cuts in public sector IT spend seen as preferable to cuts in those delivering front-line services.

There appear to be three main technology areas which voters wish to discuss. These appear taboo among technical circles – perhaps because credible responses involve taking on interest groups on whose goodwill the trade associations and professional bodies rely. The main IT and Communications suppliers will, however, have to find constructive ways of addressing them if they are not to be hit hard, where it hurts, in the wallet, with a mix of taxation and regulation. At the same time public sector spend on outside suppliers (except where the latter help local authorities get rapid payback from instant savings) is likely to shrink – leading to further cutbacks on the part of those most dependent on taxpayer funded business.   

No-one has referred to the EU Digital Single Market reform strategy (whether in the UK technical press or elsewhere during the campaign), despite the widespread leak of the main draft and supporting “evidence“. This should be of serious concern to those who think that the “real” decisions are being taken in Brussels. The only group reviewing that strategy and organising inputs in time to have effect is the DPA Digital Single Market Group, chaired by Malcolm Harbour. My own review of the section on digital skills has just been circulated to the group for comment and may already have been “leaked” to the Commission in advance of the publication of their “final” draft – due next week.

But back to the technology concerns of UK voters:
 
1) The first area on which voters (particularly those employed in the public sector) often have strong views is the perceived poor quality of service from outsourced public sector operations. The public is no longer willing to accept that this is because of “cuts”. They are beginning to blame (rightly or wrongly) “multi-national suppliers who take profits overseas” and cut their own costs by employing immigrant contractors or exporting jobs to maintain inflexible legacy contracts.

2) The second area which voters (from those affected by the abuse of family members to those running small businesses) often have strong views concerns the safety, security, privacy and reliability of on-line services run by those who do not pay their fair share of taxes. Almost all have had personal experience of abuse and or fraud (usually trivial amounts which have been refunded). The patronising attitudes of those they go to for help mean that global ISPs are now about as popular as Banks. The list of those voters want targeted for tax avoidance tends to begin with well-known technology companies and on-line retailers – alongside Greek Shipowners and Russian oligarchs.

3) The third is broadband, where small firms in urban areas are making common cause with rural activists and those who have slow or unreliable landline services at home or work or are plagued with notspots or roaming charges when they travel. 
There is no credible red blood, blue water or yellow bile between the parties on broadband policy but the views expressed by voters, and the comments candidates are having to make at local hustings. will almost certainly come back to haunt the new intake of MPs when they stand for election again with a year or so – after the widely expected hung parliament has led to a replay.

We can, therefore, begin to predict what will happen after the election – who-ever (if anyone) is in power. 

1) Anger with public service delivery – leading to devolution and “right sourcing”

Most voters take for granted those systems and services that work reliably and are easy to use. But they increasingly dislike those who provide them, from outsource suppliers to Internet Service Providers, usually because of the patronising and unhelpful responses they get when things go wrong. That is especially so when those pressing for change are told that the service is working well, in line with procurement or framework contracts, the details of which are “commercial in confidence”.

I spent nearly half a hour on one doorstep (I “waste” time because I am actually interested in what people think) listening to a social worker complaining about the fragmented benefit and welfare services that condemned those she served to poverty and unemployment, because they could not afford to take the work available and thus begin the climb back into “society”. She had chapter and verse on the traps and the nature of the work available locally (plenty of it but nearly all temporary and transitory), was IT literate (more up-to-date than me in contrasting the software used in the public and private sectors for end-user support systems) and was a great fan of Ian Duncan Smith’s insistence that the Universal Benefit systems be tested with real people before being rolled out. She also thought that the government should be able to reduce welfare spend by far more than 12 billion from welfare by helping her clients (and their peers) into work – if only they stopped using expensive, contract driven, proprietary services from outsource suppliers who took their profits overseas and took the work back in house! She also named the suppliers and consultants she thought were to blame.

Such attitudes (and inside knowledge) are not unusual.

A couple of nights ago I was at a crowded hustings meeting (standing room only) where the rise in demand for foodbanks from those whose benefits had been delayed was directly blamed on an named outsource provider. There was applause from the floor when it was said that the contractor, originally appointed by the previous government, had been fired and service was now improving. The reality is more complex – but I am reporting what I heard – not what I believe to be correct.

Who-ever is in power after the election we can expect a more “robust” approach to negotiations with suppliers and an increasing willingness of ministers to devolve responsibility to local government – so that some-one else can be blamed. Those suppliers who help groups of local authorities to work together across boundaries to use cloud over broadband to deliver more and better for less look set to inherit the market – especially when they support incremental change on positive cash flow. I am pleased to say that I had a very positive response from some of the Cloud Suppliers at the SOCITM Spring Conference where I presented “Plan B“. They are already working on the opportunity.

2) “Something must be done” about the Internet

The time has passed when the Internet was “special” and it was OK for suppliers to provide “free” services in return for harvesting our personal data (to use how they wished) while avoiding responsibility for helping take action when other users did “bad” things. Unfortunately current debate about that “something” that “must be done” is incoherent. But those who claim that “nothing” should be done, because of that incoherence, risk bringing about the worst of all worlds. Once again, realistic progress will be incremental: hence the importance of well-targeted initiatives like the DPA Age Verification Group, focused on harnessing existing technologies to improve customer confidence at the same time as making it very much easier to meet regulatory requirements around the world, not just in the UK.

That is, however, but one small shuffle in a long march. During the campaign I have heard a number of well-informed views from small businesses, including one who was incandescent about the way that the .co.uk name to which they thought they should be entitled had been sold to some-one with a fictional address on the other side of the world. It was being used for fraud which was being blamed on him. He had been deeply unimpressed by the process for halting the abuse. Having observed the actions of the lawyers working on behalf of their clients to prevent the reforms that would help greatly reduce the risk in this area, I said as little as possible. I look forward, however, to the build up of an unstoppable campaign for change.

I would, however, far prefer to see those who have good business reasons for working together to improve confidence in the Internet working through the IETF, ICANN and ISOC (as well as the regional and national registration supply chain) to produce rather better “solutions” than the politicians would.

3) We have to enable those who will benefit most to help pull through investment in Ubiquitous Broadband           

I do not believe the headline that claims broadband will influence one in five voters but it is easy to see why Conservatives representing rural constituencies are very much more concerned about the issues than Labour MPs representing urban constituencies . We need to see an end to policies based on protecting BT’s past investment and subsidising extensions of its legacy networks while BT focuses its own efforts on a quad play business model..Earlier this this week I was privileged to go direct from an IIC Meeting on funding the transition from copper to fibre to a London Business School Alumni event at which Sir Michael Rake talked about the task of turning round BT after its business model and share price had been destroyed by Ofcom. I attended LBS in the early 1970s when Michael Beasley taught us regulatory economics, The way in which regulation then supported the ossification of the AT&T monopoly was one of his case studies. His thinking lay behind the creation of Oftel in such a way as to incentive the incumbent to invest and innovate. The way Ofcom subsequently removed those incentives and BT responded in order to survive, would make a great case study for future LBS students.

We have to make it more attractive for those who have a choice to invest in UK infrastructure than that of the North or South America. We also have to allow enable those who have no choice, (householders, landlords, small firms and local government), to pool their budgets and use municipal enterprise to make the difference – hence Plan B to pull through the F plan. The location of our current high tech hubs is no accident – they cluster where there is good broadband and gravitate to where there needs are taken seriously. It is similarly no accident that INCAs next Smart City event is in Bristol where the Council is looking to pool budgets to attract serious infrastructure players to help its growth plans.  . 

Meanwhile remember the motto for our postal voting system that would disgrace a banana republic – vote early, vote often. 

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