Towards the Big Information Society or "Power to the people"

Current government policy is that which the coalition partners can agree with the tribes of Whitehall, as well as each other. Oliver Letwin has asked the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) to start looking at Conservative policy for the next election. Few of you will have heard of the Conservative Policy Forum. I attended their first “winter school” last weekend not knowing what to expect. 

What I experienced changed my way of thinking about policy formation in the modern world. The event evolved from an awkward discussion on the nature of conservatism through a great workshop on what is meant by “the big society” to a rollicking debate on the nature of democracy  in the modern world.  The underlying theme was how to reconnect political discussion with the priorities of the majority of voters, as opposed to the introverted obsessions of the Westminster village and the blogocracy and twitterati in their cyberghettoes.  

The majority of the electorate is now on-line but the backlash to political spam is gathering pace. We need acandid look at how technology is used to help progress political debate, avoidingthe “dictatorship of the sysadmins” (as with automated on-line consultation systems) and neither cocooningelected representatives nor exposing them to such e-overload that they have no time to sleep – let alonethink.  Putting the “party”, (food, drinkand physical networking) back into the Party, alongside “pseudo-social”electronic networking is a larger partof the answer than the cybernerds would have us believe. 

 The Winter School debateon the nature of the Big Society revealed a surprising degree of agreementalongside great difficulty in agreeing meaningful soundbites.  There were various comments about the “cultureof volunteering”, “the we society notthe me society” and “socialinvestment” but, for me “the de-nationalisation of compassion” encapsulatedboth what was meant and the scale and nature of the challenge. For nearly a centurypolitical debate has focussed on ways of using OPM (other people’s money) topay professionals to look after us when we are ill or in need.  The Labour government not only spent thesurpluses being created when it came to office, it mortgaged the future andleft central government financially and morally bankrupt and discredited.  We have now no choice but to continue theprocess of denationalisation. 

The challenge to the IT industry is profound. It has to switch from helpingadminister and police top-down steam-age, (the strategy dates from the 1918 Haldane Report), centralised, standardised, silo-based, national services. It has to work out how to help support and encourage akaleidoscope of bottom up, Internet age, locally organised initiatives to meet community needs. The win-win solution that O2 is about to supply toWestminster and Kensington councils indicates that the Cabinet Office strategy of moving towardsubiquitous fixed and mobile broadband access to cloud-based  government data services is more than just an elegant conceptualsolution. But how many other suppliers see the opportunity to leapfrog into a new, more profitable and sustainable world?  How many are more concerned to defend their current contracts and past business models?

At the heart of the big information society is the challengeof listening to what users and customers want and allowing services to evolveas those wants are informed by experience. This does not come easily to ITexperts who despise customers, let alone ignorant end-users who do not do asthey are expected.  Most self-styled  IT “professionals” are much more comfortable ina world where politicians have “visions”, listen to Think Tank gurus and then commissionconsultants to specify major change programmes for which they can submit safe blame-avoidance bids.    

That leads me to the final debate at the CPF Winter School.This was on the nature of democracy. Do voters really want to have to decide onlocal priorities in, for example, on-line referendums?  Would they not would prefer to leave it totheir elected representatives so that they can grumble when they get it wrong?  I had forgotten the supposed Voltaire quote onthe best form of Government: “Benevolent dictatorship, tempered by theoccasional assassination”.  We live withina semi-elected dictatorship. A surprising amount of even council spend isagreed by lobbying groups in Brussels, gold plated by Civil Servants, rubberstamped by Ministers and passed on the nod by the Westminster Parliament. Anexample is the waste directives.   Butearlier in the conference we had been told that obsession with “Europe” is anelectoral turn-off. Barely 4% think it a top issue. “Its the economy stupid”,followed by unemployment, race and immigration and law and order. 

The “answer” to the “democratic deficit” had meanwhile beenaddressed in the discussions on how the Conservative Policy Forum shouldoperate. Nearly half of constituencies now have branches and some are alreadyas strong as the best of the old CPC branches. The big difference is that instead of discussing briefs on the issue of the day they are have been asked to work onideas and material for the 2015 manifesto. More-over they will be encouraged tobring in outside experts and non-members to ensure that their recommendationsare likely to command support from the majority of the electorate.  I will therefore be asking the members of theConservative Technology Forum to help inform debate at the constituency andregional level on how technology can and should be used to support local needs- not used as an excuse for imposing central diktats. I will also be askingthem to help trial tools for on-line debate and how to use these to ensure discussionsreflect the views of the mass of participants, not just those  with the time to drown out those who disagreewith them.

As regular readers will know, my motto is “The silentmajority gets what is deserves, ignored.” If you want to participate, find your local theConservative Policy Forum group  or join the Conservative Technology Forum (sooneror later we will get round top updating the website meanwhile the on-line activity is via Linked In). Be active in your localconstituency party as well.  If you arenot a Conservative,  join the party ofyour choice and take part in their routines for policy formation. 

If you fail to do so, you will have helped preserve a worldwhere policy ideas emerge from Think Tanks, are refined in negotiation betweenthe wonks of Brussels and Westminster and the lobbyists of big business, to be implemented by civil servants looking forward to secondcareers as regulators or as consultants with those who employ thelobbyists.