Big Society = Small State. On whose side is the ICT industry?

I wrote the blog that appeared yesterday using “predictive software” – akin that to which has long infuriated me in “Word” and is now embedded in browsers. In other words, I wrote it before attending the Conservative Party Conference – because I expected to be too busy to blog and was guessing what I would hear. It was close enough to be condescendingly right, but also annoyingly wrong. My mother rang me after I got back to London to ask how the conference went. She had been listening to the closing speach. She did not understand why people were confused about the “Big Society”. To her it was obvious: “The Government has spent all the money so we have to look after ourselves”.


She was of a generation that was used to this. What she wanted from Government was for the youngsters of today to also learn self reliance at an early age – beginning by allowing the Cubs their camp fires, the Scouts their clasp knives and the Brownies and Guides to make and sell their own cakes and jam. At the Conference I was interested to hear that Government thinks it has, for example, removed the need for people to be CRB checked many times over by making the checks transferable, but the guidance to those involved is that they remain responsible for ensuring the people have indeed been checked. This is easier to do by duplicating the checks!   

There was a lot of discussion in Birmingham about what the  “Big Society” was, or was not. The common theme was that it was “bottom up initiative” – not top down guidance: any guidance from the centre would therefore run counter to the underlying philosophy of local initiative . One minister has already been accused of trying to devolve power from town hall to local communities by using “a two hundred mile Whitehall screwdriver”. His officials are said to be looking forward to being able to directly “support” (alias micro-manage) Big Society initiatives without tiers of quangoes, let alone local government, getting in the way. There were several examples of attempts to recycle the  “Westminster dreams”  of lobbyists for national  interest groups as “big society initiatives”.

Some ICT lobbyists had, however, got the intended message: giving examples of how their clients were supporting “skunk work” local systems to deliver better service, including across organisational boundaries, using open standards (including open document standards) to ensure inter-operability and enable low cost replication, whether or not the actual application software components and integration were open source, “free” and/or proprietary. There was, however, concern that officials and advisors would “gold plate” the need for inter-operability and governance standards. They could then delay savings and retain central control until the current enthusiasms have gone away.

On the positive side, I enjoyed hearing Francis Maude say that, when officials say something cannot be done, ministers or councillors should ask to have the reasons in writing  They could expect officials to withdraw their opposition at least 80% of the time. That was said at a Fringe meeting organised by Policy Exchange and Centre Forum. It was interesting to see the common ground between Conservatives and Libdems on the need to devolve from Whitehall. I was less clear whether there was the same agreement on devolution from Town Hall. 

At another Policy Exchange fringe meeting, Peter Lilley described how his attempt to introduce “lean production” techiques at DWP (stripping out complexity and enabling those in the front office to sort problems rather than pass them to the back office to fester – my word not his) had been reversed under New Labour. At the same meeting Justine Greening said she was told she was the first minister to speak to the workers, not just managers, at one of the great HMRC “clerical factories”. Those who attended the Res Publica meeting on the first day might have thought that John Seddon (speaking on the dis-economies of scale in service industries) was a maverick when he said that government should be looking to scrap back offices rather than merge then. By the end of the conference it felt as though he was at the centre of government thinking.   

It was encouraging that so many of the political think tanks have discovered the need to address the reform of delivery. I was, however, disappointed that so few lobbyists from the ICT industry were there to listen. It will come as a shock when they discover that the politicians really are serious.

The topic that was least discussed, although I was pleased to hear it refered to by Frances Maude and also by Liam Maxwell (at a Centre for Policy Studies). was the quality of the data that would be put on line to help improve accountability and what would happen when the public tried to provide feedback to get it put right. When Tweetminster caught up with me I therefore decided to use that for my quick interview on themes at the conference. I will stop here because I have a massive list of follow up actions on broadband, skills and e-crime from chance meetings by the cola machine as well as from when I was “on duty” as at the Conservative Technology Forum meeting.