Organising the political scrutiny of Digital Manifestos

What can we learn from past experience?

March saw the UK tech suppliers and professionals airing their digital aspirations at events organized by Tech UK (Policy Leadership conference 2024, ), ISPA (the Parliament & Internet Conference and the New Statemen Path to Power 2024 . There will be many more such events over the next few months as interest groups promote digital manifestos.

How do the priorities of suppliers, trade associations, professional bodies and interest groups compare to those of voters when it comes to using digital technologies to better meet the needs of society?

How will we ensure that the aspirations in, for example,  A UK Tech Plan: How the next Government can use technology to build a better Britain , are delivered rather better than those in for example, “Smarter Britain”, worked up by similar groups of suppliers and professionals, in co-operation with the then parliamentary groups, during run up to the 2010 election..

I believe we need a similar process to the 2009 Digital Policy Dragons Dens. The aim should be, once again , to test the digital manifestos of the vendors and professionals against politicians’ views of the topics that are important to voters and the realism of the proposals on offer against the “lived experience” of what the proponents have delivered in the past. The big difference is that this time the event should be before the Party Conference season – which is likely to be a series of pre-election rallies.

Background to the 2009 Dragons Den policy scrutiny events

In 1981 I was one of the team that created PITCOM to help MPs scrutinise the lobbying of the IT industry (from academics seeking funds for research to vendors wanting orders). Shortly afterwards I was head-hunted to join the National Computing Centre, (2,000 user members and 200 suppliers), to create a technology assessment service. Support for PITCOM was part of my remit. I took it with me when I left to create Winsafe Ltd with NCC as the lead client. With support from the NCC I then helped create EURIM as a research arm for PITCOM.

One of the last major programmes of EURIM, before it was relaunched after the 2010 election as the Digital Policy Alliance, was to help “the largest intake of new MPs since 1833” look at the digital promises then on offer. That programme included events, using a variety of formats, in London, Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham, as well as Dragon’s Dens at the 2009 Party Conferences.

The partners helping deliver that programme included the relevant All party Groups (APPGs) plus Computing for Labour, the Conservative Technology Forum and the LibDem equivalant.

The actual change in membership of the House of Commons was not as great as predicted, but over 120 prospective candidates signed up as “associate members” and 50 were confirmed as “parliamentary members, after being elected. About half have since served as ministers, including cabinet, or as select committee members or chairs, implementing or scrutinising proposals akin to those they reviewed as Dragons.

The first Dragons Den, at the LibDem Conference, was noteworthy for Candidates who were themselves IT Professionals being highly critical of the performance of the industry in delivering on its past promises . Stephen Timms gave me permission to blog his welcome for the Labour Party Conference Dragon’s Den in advance but we could not arrange for the Dragon’s comments to be cleared through the party press office. The Conservative Dragons were chaired by Kemi Adegoke (now Badenoch) and concluded on the need for suppliers and users to work together to produce material candidates could use to focus attention on the need for better delivery, not just aspiration.

The 2009  Dragons Den Format

The concept was for prospective parliamentary candidates to pick which Information Society related policy issues they would  use in their own election campaigns (i.e. important to local voters) and to help build their political reputations and career after being elected. The sponsors would provide/suggest speakers to say why “their” issue was important.

The candidates would then suggest campaigns on the issues they picked – i.e. no absolute winner.

The incentives for the candidates to participate would include photo-opportunities and material for them to use, alongside their own quotes, when doing their post event releases to their local press. They would then receive publicity opportunities as “their” campaign gathered pace.

The eventual topics for the 2009 party conference events were:

  • using ICT properly to deliver better service at lower cost;
  • making the on-line world safe for your children and grandparents;
  • making the UK (and/or your constituency) an attractive location for businesses that could be located anywhere in the world;

The reserve topic, to be followed up outside the conferences was:

  • smarter use of technology to help deliver, lower cost, greener, more reliable infrastructure.

But the process for selecting topics of interest to both Suppliers/Professionals and Candidates is perhaps more interesting and relevant to those looking to help inform the digital policies of the next government. 

So to is the comparison between the topics proposed by the vendors and those proposed by the candidates, before we whittled down to the short list,.

A similar exercise today would probably lead to a sharper division because so many political post bags and mailboxes (when constituents can get through) are filled with complaints from those on the wrong side of our digital divides, complaining they cannot get a human to help sort their problems. Then we have the divide over the responsibility of vendors/professionals for the way that on-line services and social media are abused by a small (probably) minority of users.

The selection process began after two events on topics of known priority.

  • investment in digital infrastructure”. This was a round table in the House of Commons to look at the network procurement policies necessary to make on-line public services fit for purpose (reliable geographic access and delivery
  • The challenges of turning round a massive bureaucracy, and improving service while cutting costs at the same time”. This was a half-day conference, organised by WCIT and hosted by IBM in their South Bank complex.

The long list of topics suggested in 2009 by suppliers/professionals included:

  •  Good practice in policy planning and procurement: with report back DPA Public Sector Procurement Group:
  • Information Governance: with inputs from a competition for on-line briefing material in co-operation with CPHC (to facilitate entries from students following multi-media courses)
  • Why do public sector ICT projects appear to cost more, take longer and fail more often than private sector projects?
  • “Thriving in the Rootless Economy” ‘What determines where ICT companies base operations (or move them to other parts of the country or off-shore)?
  • Smarter Britain: the innovative use of technology to slash the cost of delivering service delivery, health care, energy saving and other agendas – e.g. using wireless and satellite to carry smart metering, telemedicine et al to areas where cabling is uneconomic.
  • Privacy enhancing technologies.
  • Who/what do the public want as their first/main point of contact with Government? How might choice be organised/funded and need it cost more?
  • The pre-conditions for successful delivery where the application cuts across silo boundaries.
  • Privacy and security with regard to outsourced/off-shored services.
  • Means of providing resilient on-line services (including via local, shared level 5 security broadband) at affordable cost, including which suppliers are interested in helping support local aggregation campaigns involving PPCs.
  • Lessons from the Obama Campaign and other exercises in using on-line media (from texting to twitter, blogging, social networking, sousveillance et al) for “conversation”, “consultation” and campaigning
  • E-Crime:.
  • Green IT

 The long list of topics Suggested by Candidates in 2009 included:

  • How to design and manage large scale ICT programmes so they succeed rather than being candidates for failure from the start. Can programmes ever be “too big”?
  • How do we deliver 21st century digital network to promote inclusions and equality of access for individuals as well as businesses?
  • What is the role of technology in promoting social inclusion and community capacity building?
  • How do we ensure small, growing ICT businesses (e.g. 3rd sector companies) can compete for public sector contracts on a level playing field with large corporates
  • How do we identify the next generation of technologies in which we should invest/support R&D now so that the UK becomes a leader in such fields, rather than a follower.
  • Using new technology for campaigning and helping pupils at schools in the constituency.
  • Protection for Vulnerable Adults, Elder Abuse and intergenerational  equity, including the care and protection of vulnerable people in their old age: Should we be concerned, for example, that one of the reasons adults in care settings or in their own homes become isolated and excluded from participation in decision-making is because so much of our public information and debate is now only available online, unless you make a specific request.  Is the online community aware of this tendency of the medium itself to act as a barrier to participation for some groups? How are we as democratic politicians working to prevent some people from becoming excluded from the Information Society ideals?
  • transport and sustainability.
  • Why some Government IT Projects “fail” while others “succeed” and how to to better publicise and learn from success?
  • How laws encourage or inhibit smaller enterprises.
  • “How cloud computing relates to business”.

Towards a similar 2024 Programme

 The first step is to identity those interested in working together to identify topics and problems of interest to candidates and voters, as well as to vendors and professionals.

The second is to organise round tables to identify proposals that might address them.

Then come the Dragons Dens to expose the proposals to political scrutiny.

Finally come the working groups to turn the proposals into implementation plans for who-ever is elected.

Possible topics and proposals

In November 2023 the DPA provided an umbrella for The Skills Round Table with invitations to the two dozen (or so) APPGs with overlapping interests on education, skills and lifelong learning. The text of my “convenors report” is included here Will 2024 be the year AI begins to transform Education, Recruitment, Training from cradle to dotage?

The event was intended to identify topics for future co-operation, but some f the partnerships were under way before we had left the Palace of Westminster. These reported back to the DPA Cyber Security Skills and Partnerships Subgroup Meeting in February and implementation is now gathering pace.  This enables pitches for Dragon’s Dens on skills polices based on supporting that which can already be demonstrated.

Examples include

  • “Cyber Governors for Schools” (where a proposal for a London pilot is now progressing nationally) and
  • “The accreditation of Digital micro-modules against SFIA” (where the approach facilitates flexible “earn while you learn” programmes from welfare to work, through apprenticeships work force updating).

An example of the topics identified in November on which work has yet to begin was the critical importance of ensuring that all schools, colleges and local learning centres have the robust reliable, industry (not consumer) strength broadband to move to cloud-based “education as a service”.

Without this, none of the aspirations for levelling up and/or access to the skills to improve productivity.  The follow up team is therefore looking for those interested in working up a proposal to use the £100 million (or so) voucher underspend that is currently expected to be handed back to Treasury next March to provide full fibre and/or satellite back up to those schools and access centres (rural and inner city) currently reliant on copper, coax or consumer grade fibre.

Another topic was the critical importance of affordable and reliable access for pupils and students. The recent Intel report on UK University Digital Estates indicates the problems students have in accessing hybrid courses from their lodgings (a mix of network access and reliablity). It is much worse for inner city and rural pupils who face the added cost of mobile charges if they are outside wifi range. The follow up team is therefore looking to work up a proposal for exemption from mobile data charges when on-line to accredited education networks.

There was widespread interest among the specialist APPGs in co-operation to co-ordinate support for the automation and gamification of special educational needs diagnosis and delivery, linked to mainstream work of attitude and aptitude research and customisation to reduce cost.

But the first step is to identity those with budgets, resources, expertise and experience, who are interested in working together to identify topics and problems of interest to candidates and voters, not just to suppliers, professionals and enthusiasts. 

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