Is there a secret all-party deal on Digital Britain?

Not since the Mandarins blocked the 1982 attempt to turn the DTI into the Department of IT have we had not only a Government Minister but also his shadow, who understand the critical importance of ICT as a metatechnology. They share the message. The quality of our ICT infrastructure, including skills and broadband will underpin or undermine economic recovery

The CMA conference this week began with Collette Bowe making her first speech as incoming chair of Ofcom. I particularly noted her candour on some of the problems to be addressed and her desire to work with business users to better identify their needs (bandwidth, resilience, quality of service etc.) as part of the task of pulling through the changes needed.

Then came Carolyn Kimber’s presentation of the hard-hitting five point CMA Manifesto , repeated to the PITCOM AGM that evening. Hard-hitting and controversial: until you realised that she was singing from the same aspirational hymn sheet as Collett Bowe and Lord Carter. Even her crack at the cultural differences between DCMS and BERR, only ten minutes brisk walk but worlds apart, was an echo of Carter’s comments in January to the Westminster Media Forum on the task he faces

Unfortunately Lord Carter was not able to be present at the CMA conference to speak for himself – so delegates had only me the authorised vsion of his Interim report – lacking the passion that gives confidence that he might actually succeed in bringing Whtehall together to create a coherant industrial strategy for Digital Britain.

Then, on the second day of the CMA conference after Malcolm Harbour MEP had “politely lambasted” the lack of progress at the European level, Jeremy Hunt, as Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS, delivered the coup de grace. The officials have no obvious escape route from the silo busters. Under a Conservative Government the roles of Lord Carter and Andy Burnham would be merged. Jeremy already has the lead on technology for the Conservatives and is working closely with Ken Clarke.

I was project manager for the only one of Tony Benn’s 1970s tripartite planning exercises to deliver what was intended – and more. £55,000 of DTI funding, plus co-operation from the Department of the Environment, enabled ICL Water Area to organise a co-operative planning exercise that gave them the contacts and understanding of customer needs to win over 80% of a free market, in direct competition against IBM, Unisys, Honeywell and Burroughs.

However, I had just come out of business school (London Business School course MSc 06, class of Paddy Barwise, David Davis and Peter Lampl,) and took a keen interest in why the other planning exercises had produced well-received reports, some better-received than ours, but failed to achieve their objectives. They were concerned with recommending what should be done, rather than what the users most wanted from that which could be realistically achieved over time, given the people and skills likely to be available and affordable and the budgets and timescales in prospect. 

I therefore disagreed with Kenneth Baker when he scrapped the follow up to IT Year, which I was head-hunted to join the National Computing Centre in 1982 to help run.

It was not that I believed that DTI could deliver a meaningful industrial strategy.

It was that I believed it could be the catalyst for enabling industry to deliver one – using the systems thinking that John Hoskyns was then seeking to apply to govenment as a whole.

Lord Carter’s attempt to agree an industrial strategy may be 25 years too late for the UK to be a world leader in other than a few niche technologies – albeit some are pretty big niches, like building communications satellites.

But Hopefully it is not too late for the UK to be a worthy European partner for those around the Pacific Rim who invented ICT (paper, printing, rocketry, semaphore etc.) and are currently leading the creation of a new world as Pax Americana follows Pax Britannica into the history books: and for very similar reasons. 

I have just rceived a copy of a Huawei corporate presentation showing some of the communications projects which they have already delivered around the world. It reminded me of the ambition we have lost. W

hether or not Lord Carter succeeds  I am now fully ready to give my third cheer to his vision and am more than delighted to see such cross party consensus.

I remind you all that 12th March is the deadline for comment on the Digital Britain report. You will find current thinking on the EURIM contribution on the page of the Communications Group . There is more to come from the other groups.

P.S. If you do not know why most people need at least 10 megs synchronous, try sending an e-mail with a set of digital holiday photos of your children to your sliver surfing grandparents. Unless you have worked out how to reduce those multi-megabyte photofiles to hundred kilobyte files it takes ages. And as for sending a recording of them singing in the church choir or a movie of them in the school play – its better to put a USB or CDRom in the post!