After us the drought of democracy?

The BBC cover of a report from the Environment Agency warning of serious water shortages by 2050 while sufficient to supply 20 million consumers is being wasted prompted an attack of déjà vu. Similar statements were made in the 1970s and led to the formation of the Regional Water Authorities. So I looked up my file copy of “The Next Years – A computing development plan for Regional Water Authorities”: This was the report of the programme on which I worked after leaving London Business School in 1973. My role was to look at the financial systems needs of the re-organised industry. I thought the studies that had led up to the wholesale merger of water boards, sewage and sewerage boards, river authorities and nature conservancy operations were being with-held from me. My father, a senior civil servant in MAFF, thought they did not exist. He explained how ill-informed Whitehall usually was and why. He suggested that instead we  should put what they might have been and ask our contacts whether it fitted with their “information”.

I spent a fortnight using what I had learned at Business School to do a strategic analysis of the Water “industry” based on the data available from Municipal and other Year Books. The result was “The Economic Profile of the Average RWA”. Given more time I could have profiled each potential RWA but was told instead to send my analysis to the members of the Steering Group for comment at the same time as asking the Department of Environment. It was the first tangible output from the programme. It was also unlike any analysis the members of the group had even seen. I would be promoted or fired, dependent on the reaction.

That decision proved critical to the subsequent success of the study. It became the only one of the DTI “Industrial Strategy” exercises of the 1970s to achieve its objective of enabling British Industry to win against overseas suppliers with neither subsidy nor compulsion. The realisation that debt service already accounted for 24% of spend (i.e. more than administration, maintenance and customer service added together) changed the nature of discussion over future governance and management structures. Doors opened. Those wanting key financial roles in the new industry wanted to grill ICL’s young business graduate, to see whether he was pretentious prat and , if not, what else they could get out of the study.  Meanwhile my colleague looking at Operational, Hydrometry and Water Quality systems was at similarly fallow ground.

A “dry/techie computer study” had moved centre stage of the politic is of re-organisation. As we moved forward, asking questions about the validity of what we found rather than giving answers, we uncovered the wealth of work and thinking that had already done by those working in different parts of the “industry”. Almost all was unknown to the policy makers in Whitehall. All we had to do was “listen to the users” and the report “wrote itself”. Meanwhile my boss (who had the expense account) thanked all those helping us – thus ensuring that that the key figures in the industry recognised their own recommendations in our write-ups. His boss, who I otherwise still rate very highly, remains puzzled by our success in “telling them how to run their own industry”.

But “listening to the users” was, and still is, anathema to most of those in the Computing, IT and now Digital worlds.

So too is basing Government (whether Whitehall or Brussels) policy on “real world” experience as opposed to the jockeying of the lobbyists of the big consultancies and suppliers whose funding (direct and indirect) also dictates the inputs from trade associations and professional bodies.

Hence the reason the “real world” is now revolting against the digerati as well as against the political classes and the “post rational liberal intelligentsia” – and “none of the above” (35% “don’t know”) has overtaken Jeremy Corbyn (27%) as second choice to Theresa May (37%) for Prime Minister.  Plus ca change …. In the late 1970s Margaret Thatcher was the outsider who stormed the ramparts. Today it would appear that neither Labour nor the LibDems are ready for a leader who is not white, male, pale and stale like the other misogynists who run the European Union and most of the On-line World. Both groups have mindsets stuck in the 1960s/70s of their respective cultures – “Post WW2 war corporate statism” versus “Californian counter-culture meets free enterprise”.  Hence their problems in coping with the wave of change, intellectual as well as economic, that may be about to engulf us all

In the 1970s I joined the Real Time Club .Last night I attended their discussion on how the Internet is killing democracy . The discussion was chilling – with contributions from those at the heart of current and emerging technologies as well as voices from the past. The conclusion was that the opening speaker, Jamie Bartlett  is an optimist.  Indeed the participants were so concerned, including over the collapse of quality control, governance and accountability (at all levels and in all dimensions – technical, legal, regulatory etc.) that for the first time in the Club’s fifty year history they suspended the Chatham House rule. In March, during the 101st Meeting of the IETF in London, I attended a discussion on “How to build trust between politicians and engineers in tackling the security, or otherwise, of the Internet of Things”. One theme was the importance of separating the processes for handling the building blocks from those for handling the way they are assembled into applications, let alone subsequently used.  Yesterday, at the Real Time Club,  I was disturbed to learn that some of those “blocks” are no more robust today than they were 50 years ago. Indeed some are still in use and still have same vulnerabilities. Next week I am looking forward to the discussions at the 40th Anniversary of FIPR but am not expecting to be reassured as to the state of honesty and probity with regard to discussions on, for example, privacy.

Before then I plan, however, to blog on my own impressions from, the Real Time Club discussions yesterday. I have never been quite sure what “democracy” means. My theme is therefore more likely to be “accountability” – whether it is to “God”, “the planet”, “the people”, “the customer” or your conscience. Given my personal concerns over the evil that can be done in the name of professional or legal accountability, let alone party loyalty or patriotism I think it will be an interesting blog to draft.


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