Current government policy is that which the coalition partners can agree with the tribes of Whitehall, as well as each other. Oliver Letwin has asked the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) to start looking at Conservative policy for the next election. Few of you will have heard of the Conservative Policy Forum. I attended their first "winter school" last weekend not knowing what to expect.
What I experienced changed my way of thinking about policy formation in the modern world. The event evolved from an awkward discussion on the nature of conservatism through a great workshop on what is meant by "the big society" to a rollicking debate on the nature of democracy in the modern world. The underlying theme was how to reconnect political discussion with the priorities of the majority of voters, as opposed to the introverted obsessions of the Westminster village and the blogocracy and twitterati in their cyberghettoes.
The majority of the electorate is now on-line but the backlash to political spam is gathering pace. We need a candid look at how technology is used to help progress political debate, avoiding the "dictatorship of the sysadmins" (as with automated on-line consultation systems) and neither cocooning elected representatives nor exposing them to such e-overload that they have no time to sleep - let alone think. Putting the "party", (food, drink and physical networking) back into the Party, alongside "pseudo-social" electronic networking is a larger part of the answer than the cybernerds would have us believe.
The Winter School debate on the nature of the Big Society revealed a surprising degree of agreement alongside great difficulty in agreeing meaningful soundbites. There were various comments about the "culture of volunteering", "the we society not the me society" and "social investment" but, for me "the de-nationalisation of compassion" encapsulated both what was meant and the scale and nature of the challenge. For nearly a century political debate has focussed on ways of using OPM (other people's money) to pay professionals to look after us when we are ill or in need. The Labour government not only spent the surpluses being created when it came to office, it mortgaged the future and left central government financially and morally bankrupt and discredited. We have now no choice but to continue the process of denationalisation.
The challenge to the IT industry is profound. It has to switch from helping
administer and police top-down steam-age, (the strategy dates from the 1918 Haldane Report), centralised, standardised, silo-based, national services. It has to work out how to help support and encourage a
kaleidoscope of bottom up, Internet age, locally organised initiatives to meet community needs. The win-win solution that O2 is about to supply to
Westminster and Kensington councils indicates that the Cabinet Office strategy of moving towards
ubiquitous fixed and mobile broadband access to cloud-based government data services is more than just an elegant conceptual
solution. But how many other suppliers see the opportunity to leapfrog into a new, more profitable and sustainable world? How many are more concerned to defend their current contracts and past business models?
At the heart of the big information society is the challenge of listening to what users and customers want and allowing services to evolve as those wants are informed by experience. This does not come easily to IT experts who despise customers, let alone ignorant end-users who do not do as they are expected. Most self-styled IT "professionals" are much more comfortable in a world where politicians have "visions", listen to Think Tank gurus and then commission consultants to specify major change programmes for which they can submit safe blame-avoidance bids.
That leads me to the final debate at the CPF Winter School. This was on the nature of democracy. Do voters really want to have to decide on local priorities in, for example, on-line referendums? Would they not would prefer to leave it to their elected representatives so that they can grumble when they get it wrong? I had forgotten the supposed Voltaire quote on the best form of Government: "Benevolent dictatorship, tempered by the occasional assassination". We live within a semi-elected dictatorship. A surprising amount of even council spend is agreed by lobbying groups in Brussels, gold plated by Civil Servants, rubber stamped by Ministers and passed on the nod by the Westminster Parliament. An example is the waste directives. But earlier in the conference we had been told that obsession with "Europe" is an electoral turn-off. Barely 4% think it a top issue. "Its the economy stupid", followed by unemployment, race and immigration and law and order.
The "answer" to the "democratic deficit" had meanwhile been addressed in the discussions on how the Conservative Policy Forum should operate. Nearly half of constituencies now have branches and some are already as strong as the best of the old CPC branches. The big difference is that instead of discussing briefs on the issue of the day they are have been asked to work on ideas and material for the 2015 manifesto. More-over they will be encouraged to bring in outside experts and non-members to ensure that their recommendations are likely to command support from the majority of the electorate. I will therefore be asking the members of the Conservative Technology Forum to help inform debate at the constituency and regional level on how technology can and should be used to support local needs - not used as an excuse for imposing central diktats. I will also be asking them to help trial tools for on-line debate and how to use these to ensure discussions reflect the views of the mass of participants, not just those with the time to drown out those who disagree with them.
As regular readers will know, my motto is "The silent majority gets what is deserves, ignored." If you want to participate, find your local the Conservative Policy Forum group or join the Conservative Technology Forum (sooner or later we will get round top updating the website meanwhile the on-line activity is via Linked In). Be active in your local constituency party as well. If you are not a Conservative, join the party of your choice and take part in their routines for policy formation.
If you fail to do so, you will have helped preserve a world where policy ideas emerge from Think Tanks, are refined in negotiation between the wonks of Brussels and Westminster and the lobbyists of big business, to be implemented by civil servants looking forward to second careers as regulators or as consultants with those who employ the lobbyists.