As the three main party's implode into a period of soul searching, wondering why their faithful have drifted away, what topics are the lobbyists promoting to those who attend their annual fund-raising events?
A quick scan of the exbition guides and fringe listings indicates that the lobbyists main priorities are:
- energy: particularly subsidies for windmills and nuclear
- the use of social media and networking for political campaigning
- digital skills programmes: education, schools, universities etc.
- encouraging the further outsourcing of service delivery (including but, not just IT).
- privacy and surveillance policy (albeit driven by civil liberties rather than corporate lobbyists).
I could find little on the use of IT to help improve service delivery - except for education or in the context of promoting further outsourcing. More suprisingly there appear to be no broadband events - except for the Next Gen event in London while the Conservatives are in Birmingham.
The only directly IT-related event, apart from the Big Brother Watch meetings on the Comunications Data Bill, is the Conservative Technology Forum meeting to put Smart Meters and Smart Grid policy into the context of a converged 21st Century Smart Infrastructure (including ubiquitous broadband to support ubiquitous computing and communications for the Internet of Things).
That meeting appears likely to be one of the few with two Ministerial speakers (one current, one former) that is not commercially sponsored. The reason is probably that none of the lobbyists can find out, or influence, what is to be said by the speakers. I am chairman of the CTF and I do not know, although I sat in on most of the discussion meetings and have seen earlier drafts of the policy proposals to be presented for comment. I should perhaps add that I delegated the organisation of the policy paper and the meeting to those who understand that subject much better than I - and look forward to listening and learning. Most sponsors would, however, be more fearful of things being said which did not fit their current lobbying position than would appreciate the benefits of being seen to support genuinely open discussion.
That leads me to the question of whether Party Conferences should be an annual lobbying exercise or a rally of the faithful. If they are primarily a rally of the faithful, should it be to listen to their leaders, for their leaders to listen to them or for leaders and followers to try engage in genuine dialogue?
The use of IT to improve service delivery may no longer be a headline item in the mainstream or fringe programmes this year, but it is likely to be a serious topic of conversation elsewhere at the Conservative Party Conference - perhaps more robustly than many lobbyists would like. One of the welcome innovations this year is a series of Conservative Policy Forum meetings for party activists to discuss what matters to them them.
The CPF has a surprising number of former information systems and project management professionals in membership, possibly because of the "downsizing" of the UK IT industry over the past twenty years. Many have strong views on how to get better for money than by paying 30% (or more) over the odds from that small number of dominant suppliers who spend tens of £billions p.a. on behalf of central government. Unfortunately their analyses of what went wrong and why are often better than their ability to suggest realistic ways forward.
Microsoft (one of that minority of suppliers which still takes support for long-term "public affairs", as opposed to short-term "government sales support" seriously) recently hosted a very well-informed Conservative Technology Forum round table on the politics of co-operation in service delivery. This indicated the scale of change in prospect as we attempt to refine gold standard information from the toxic sludge that is current public sector "Big Data" in order to support the delivery of better targetted public services. We agreed to return to this topic after the Conference. I then hope to balance the inputs (derived from far better informed and profound thinking than I had anticpated) from Microsoft with those from others who are equally serious about responding to change rather than trying to prevent it.