The Information Society Alliance (EURIM) Policy Dragons Den in Manchester was the only one to proceed to a vote. Under the crisp chairmanship of Kemi Adegoke (Candidate for Dulwich and West Norword) there was some distressingly well informed roasting of the IT industry’s track record of delivery and a lively argument over the desirability and practicality of cleaning up (alias censoring) the Internet, The twelve parliamentary candidates on the panel then gave clear priority to removing the barriers to enterprise and job creation.
One of those barriers was the lack of access to genuine broadband, that capable of carrying full motion, entertainment quality video to the home or workshop: the 2002 target of the last Conservative government, abandoned in 1997 when Labour came to power. Like the Labour and LibDem Dragons they homed in on the need for material to support those who will be using participation in local broadband access campaigns as part of their own election strategies. Like them, they also felt that “access” needed to include support for those in urban areas who cannot afford current service offerings. There were also strong views on the usability of those services by the majority of the electorate.
Dr David Butler of Atkins was the first champion. He summarised the various reports on government IT projects and asked whether the criticism to which they have been subjected was justified. He said: “There is no such thing as an IT project: All such projects are a combination of people, process, technology and leadership. The key to stop IT project failures is to have the right information and ask the right questions at the appropriate time.”
Lesley Cowley, Chief Executive of Nominet asked candidates to participate in the Internet Governance Forum: “With society and global business becoming critically dependent on services delivered over the Internet, more than ever Internet Governance is an issue that politicians need to understand and be involved in. By engaging in the Internet governance debate, MPs can make a positive difference to the lives of people through encouraging partnerships and coalitions that help deliver better access, child protection, prevention of fraud or other abuse.”
I then said they would not be re-elected if most of their voters were unemployed, in low-paid dead-end jobs or pension-slashed poverty come the election of 2015. They had to help create, attract and retain the wealth creating jobs of the future, lest the UK becomes a post-industrial poor relation to the economic powerhouses of Asia. This caused one candidate to comment that I was threatening them with de-selection before they had even been elected!
The Conservative Dragons came from a variety of backgrounds, from the computer games industry to small business users and from pig farming to software evaluation. Those with a professional IT background were the least forgiving about the performance of the handful of contractors who are said to account for 80% of central government’s IT spend. The industry needed to put much more effort into identifying and meeting user needs, not just hitting the targets their lawyers had agreed with the consultants employed by departments that had lost their in-house planning and procurement skills, let alone contact with those the systems were supposed to serve.
Commenting on the lively debate that followed the opening introductions, Ewan Lamont, Conservative Candidate for Nottingham East said:
“This was a great event today. The three issues that were raised are extremely important ones. More debate and discussion is needed to try and stop future IT budgets going over budget and make sure they are managed appropriately. We need to start thinking about engaging with governance on the Internet. At the moment politicians are too scared.”
Mark Pawsey, Candidate for Rugby, felt the material needed to be tightened before it was used politically but left with an action:
“This was an interesting debate and I thoroughly enjoyed being a dragon. The cases that were made were a little looser than if they were to be made to voters. It brought important IT related matters to the fore and I left with a campaign to run in my constituency based on broadband availability across my constituency.”
Stephen Mold, Candidate for Derby North, commented on the impact of technology on the political process itself:
“Technology provides some amazing opportunities over the next parliament both in the optimisation of government and delivery of services to people. In addition to that it also aids the interaction between voters and politicians which the expenses scandal demonstrates is not happening at the moment. Receiving feedback and communicating with voters in the most efficient way is an important goal.”
Nick Pickles, City Seats candidate for Pontefract and Normanton, welcomed both the inputs on scale of change needed and also the open discussion on some of the more difficult issues:
“The Dragons’ Den was an extremely useful event because we accept that government has to be generally transformational at the next election to solve the problems that are facing Britain and an exciting part of the dragons’ den was hearing the discussion around the boundaries of policy discussion and issues of censorship and civil liberties.”
A key issue was to keep our workforce up to date with the skills it needs to remain employable and Alan Cullens, Candidate for Chorley ,said:
“One of the most important issues today is around skills and ensuring that ICT is seamless from the start of school all the way through university, making sure we have the right people for the jobs of the future.”
There was a lively debate between the Dragons on some of the governance issues and Peter Aldous, Candidate for Waveney said:
“I found it a very useful session. As far as governance is concerned I’m not sure the Internet is governable by an individual state, but it is quite capable of being self-governing. Consumers need to decide what they want from the Internet in advance and providers need to identify their clients’ requirements.”
Philip Milton (Candidate for North Devon) suggested that, at the moment, the protections are inadequate and more needs to be done to protect access generally, as well as ensure that a final responsibility needs to rest somewhere – e.g. the host/ISP. This would feature with both pornography, etc and also fraud. He was bemused at the comment that his raising the issue was the first and more audible so far and was concerned at the tendency to allow “optimism bias” to colour our basic judgement and at least assess all these things very carefully indeed.
One of the younger conference delegates pointed out, from the floor, that we already have Internet censorship – on the feeds to schools. He and his peers get round it quite easily. He then added that some of what they found really was rather nasty.
One of the other industry participants, Mike Fitzgerald of Hewlett Packard said:
“This was my first EURIM meeting which I found extremely informative, particularly the drive towards the better engagement of the public sector with IT to make things work together. We need to be far more collaborative and far more realistic in the outcomes we expect from IT projects.”
That point on collaboration was echoed and the Dragons’ vote at the end was also for the plans of EURIM, the Information Society Alliance, to bring suppliers and users together to produce collective briefing material that candidates could use.