I blame John Humphries

Many of the centralised, top-down projects (doomed to fail before they even start) of recent years result from the need for Ministers to respond to media demands for “something to be done” about the scandal of the day.


There is a symbiotic link between the uniquely centralised UK government machine and our similarly “capital-centric” media. The United States has the Washington Post, the New York Times and a host of local radio and TV stations transmitting varying mixes of networked content and local/national news. The United Kingdom has the National Press and the British Broadcasting Corporation to tell us all what to think.

Conventional wisdom is that the power of the London Press to dominate national thought was established during the railway age, but its power to change events goes back much further.

For many years the cover page of the PITCOM Journal carried a photograph of Oliver Cromwell, the first leader to owe his rise to power to ICT. The King’s army was marching on London along old A40 (the Great West Road), almost unopposed, when some of their cavalry “insulted” a barmaid in Brentford and the beat up the landlady and trashed the alehouse during the brawl that followed. The following day, before the King had breakfasted, London was awash with broadsheets describing the “Sack of Brentford” by a horde of drunken Northerners intent on subjecting the City to an orgy of rape and pillage. Every horse in London was enlisted to drag artillery, cannon balls and gunpowder from the Tower of London to the Acton Blockhouse – where every Londoner who could bear arms joined the tiny garrison which had previously expected, at best, to be allowed to surrender gracefully. The Londoners aim was not to fight the King but to stop his army from entering their homes and businesses. The King then made the mistake of trying to barge his way through.

So began what historians describe as the “inclusive” battle of Turnham Green (the nearest the King’s cavalry got to London). But ICT (alias the printing press) had changed the course of history just as surely as it did in World War 2 with Engima and Bletchley Park.

Last night, at PITCOM, Gillian Merron said that Transformational Govemment was about WHAT IT should be used to deliver, not just about HOW and asked her audience to help. Most of the contributions from the floor were quite bland. However, the only member of the audience with personal experience of “transforming” a major organisations said that what was needed was nothing less than revolution and recent events were only a start, It would get much rougher. Then it would get rougher still. Because it was all about changing attitudes not just applying technology in different ways.

But how do we change the attitudes of the media so that they stop complaining about post- code lotteries and start campaigning for citizen-centric empowerment and local choice?

Now that really would be revolutionary.

P.S. I was disappointed to once gain hear technology suppliers proposing their products as solutions to a failure of people-processes. I was, however, delighted to hear that APACs would be working with HMRC on lessons from the banking sector. Such a learning process is needed across central government as a whole because, by and large, people trust their bank – at least as long as it continues to pick up the cost of on-line fraud. And unless it can rebuild trust in centralised computer systems, Whitehall will have no choice other than to devolve power to Town Hall – and Tony Collins will be out of a job, the Today Programme will revert to the style of Jack De Manio, Ministers will get another hour in bed and pigs might fly.

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