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Allow market forces to redress regulatory failure - A budget for IT enabled recovery Part 2

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There has been a chorus of complaints that the government does not have an industry strategy - as though this were to be deplored. I happen to be a Historian by original discipline and wanted to do research into the causes of growth, comparing economic theory with reality. My tutor, Maurice Cowling, set about dissuading me. He said I would find the answers in the real world and come back to Cambridge when I had found them. The attitudes of those who were happy to offer me immediate post-graduate places persuaded me he was correct.

I was then lucky enough to have three challenging years of systems engineering "apprenticeship" with STC and ICL followed by two years at the London Business School and the opportunity to lead the most successful of the industry strategy exercises that was the legacy of Tony Benn's Ministry of Technology. Later I had five years as Corporate Planner for a UK-owned multi-national, including helping organise inputs to the "industrial strategies" of nations around the world. Comparing their approaches to that of the UK did indeed lead me to some firm conclusions.

The most important is that British industry nearly always does best when Whitehall does least. "Planning" is all-too-often a euphemism for protecting the past from the future. An "industry strategy" is a euphemism for giving jobs to economics graduates not wanted by the private sector as investment analysts or corporate planners assisted by consultants touting for future business and lobbyists seeking grants to position their employers. The failure of UK government attempts to pick winners (over the past century !!!) gives no confidence that the Coalition Government can do any better. Even when ministers and officials pick the right race course they choose the wrong horses, train them the wrong way and enter them in the wrong races.

In 1978 - 9, I was part of the policy team (reporting via Ian Lloyd to Sir Keith Joseph) that looked to IT and Communications as the drivers of UK economic recovery. We called for Telecoms Liberalisation and Privatisation, a major government supported awareness campaign (it became IT 82) and a Micro in every school by 1982. I then watched as DTI turned low-cost success into expensive failure, draining enthusiasm with "challenge programmes" and initiatives while hobbling indigenous growth with:

- "investment protection" regulation that routed funding via remote pension funds and trusts while excluding the hands-on "angels" and informed local investors who are at the heart US success,

- "tax avoidance" measures which make growth companies pay tax before they have positive cash flows and reinvestment for growth, let alone to give a return to equity investors

- government procurement routines which actively discriminate against innovative new UK businesses in favour of overseas competitors which can quote their own governments as lead customers.  

Then came the Labour Government destruction of the enthusiasm inspired by the Micros in Schools programme, with mandated teaching on how to use an imported suite of proprietary office software. Finally, DTI and Ofcom set about reversing the Conservative policy of liberalisation leading to an open and competitive market. They may not have talked about reversing privatisation but, unless Ministers take action soon, current BDUK policy will re-create a BT-led cartel akin to that of AT&T and the baby Bells which the OFTEL regime was designed to avoid. 

The time has come to look back at what has worked in the past, (as well as what has never previously worked and is unlikely to do so this time round) and allow market forces to redress the failures of planning and regulation.

The four areas where I would most like to see a commitment to action in the Budget in order to help bring about a market driven, investment led economic recovery without calling for spend that HMG cannot afford are: 

Rationalising the slew of semi-incompatible Information and Identity Governance proposals

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Tomorrow I am due to help open the first discussion at the ETICA conference in Brussels on bringing together Ethics, Innovation and Politics. I have been piggy-in-the-middle between politicians and techies for over thirty years and believe Ethics entails accepting responsibility for the consequences of our past actions - not evading responsibility because the unexpected has happened or technology has changed.  My first point will therefore be that not only is technology  neutral but that the implications of most of the supposedly emerging technologies were being discussed over twenty years ago, albeit some of the terminology was different.

Freedom of Information (and Wikileaks) v. Censorship (and Established Power)

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The reaction to the Wikileaks story exposes the heady mixture of self-delusion that passes for debate on freedom of information, transparency of government, re-use of public information, secure data sharing, data protection, information assurance, information security, information risk management and even net neutrality. I am waiting for the rumours that the Wikileaks was assisted by the Chinese, Indian or Isreali governments - or a coalition of all three. It was also an accident waiting to happen, given the US approach to "secure information sharing" after 9/11.

How many UK Public Sector IT suppliers will survive the cuts?

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What do you call an industry which does not plan for the inevitable? Like Y2K the cuts in ICT spend announced yesterday were inevitable. What was not inevitable was the rush of buyers and suppliers into a final round of big-bang deals that were bad value for taxpayers and shareholders alike and will have to be unscrambled.  Rather than bemoan the reasons why ICT turned from White Knight into Whipping Boy I would would prefer to ask "How many suppliers have the wit and will to help turn a potentially terminal crisis for their UK public sector operations into an uprecedented opportunity for mutually beneficial change?"  

 

      

Lib-Con plans for NHS IT

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Further to my blog yesterday, those wishing to ponder the future of NHS IT could do a lot worse than look at the previous Conservative policy statement in response to the independent reivew of NHS IT commissioned by Stephen O'Brien. That review addressed questions raised in an earlier, rather less detailed and thoughtful (only nine pages as opposed to over 180 for the independent review) study by Centre Right Think Tank Aediles. The title of that paper Computerising the Chinese Army summarised the problem. The "solution", a mix of devolution, choice and inter-operability, was another of those areas where Conservatives and the LibDems were in strong agreement even before current love-in. Implementation is another matter - given that so many trusts are constrained by impossible service contracts and bankrupt in all but name.

 

Hung Drawn and Quartered

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One of the sadder features of the General Election was the failure of so many candidates with a solid understanding of the world of information systems to be elected or re-elected. Several came so close that I hope they will be successfull, when the National Government falls apart: whether over failure to agree savings that satisfy the IMF, the timing of the referendum on electoral reform or the immunity of MPs from having their broadband cut-off after their children have downloaded ...

 

The Digital Economy (emergency) Act?

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Last night, at the Convergence Conversation (Digital Economy Bill, Swan or Albatross) there was surprisingly unanimity across Telcos, ISPs and even Content producers that the agreement of the LibDems and Conservatives to the rushed compromise over the Bill had been a mistake. Their aim had been to get the Act out of the way so that the new government could concentrate on sorting out Public Finances before the IMF did it for them - but it was likely to backfire on all concerned. 

When IT Meets the General Election: How do the manifestos compare with what the ICT industy wants?

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Computer Weekly and others are publishing summaries of the technology policies of the main parties and collecting shopping lists from interest groups. How do they compare? Not well. All parties are going to provide broadband and efficiency but say little about how, save that they are going to halt big IT projects and go open source. However, the manifestos say little or nothing about the need for rapid and effective action to improve workforce skills and professionalism, both in-house (Government as an intelligenct user and efficient buyer) and across the IT industry at large.

But it wasn't me who asked for my benefit to be paid into Megabank

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The Government plans for us all to have personal web-access to their on-line services inside four years, as described in the Times today are as "ambitious" and cahllenging as they are overdue. If they are serious about socailly inclusive delivery the first step must be to ensure that the "Digital Gateway Offices" have on-line access that is fit for a sub-postmistress to access on behalf of a queue of frail pensioners. The second is to ensure that all involved (including contractors in the supply and support chains) are vetted and subject to personal liabilities for carelessness and indiscretion, let alone active misconduct, that are at least as strong as for those who run a sub-post-office.

Universal access to on-line government is the "real" Digital Britain target.

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We have much heart-searching as to what the 2 mbps universal service target means. The "answer" is to redefine it as "reliable, working, access to government's on-line services by 2012" - particularly those of Defra, DWP and HMRC - to be assessed by the NAO. With the Audit Commission assessing the performance of Local Government in parallel.

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