When IT Meets the General Election: How do the manifestos compare with what the ICT industy wants?

Computer Weekly and others are publishing summaries of the technology policies of the main parties and collecting shopping lists from interest groups. How do they compare? Not well. All parties are going to provide broadband and efficiency but say little about how, save that they are going to halt big IT projects and go open source. However, the manifestos say little or nothing about the need for rapid and effective action to improve workforce skills and professionalism, both in-house (Government as an intelligenct user and efficient buyer) and across the IT industry at large.

That is a recurrent theme in the requests from industry: robustly from Ian Rickwood at IMIS . deamnds. My own article, on behalf of EURIM, has yet to be published. It is rather less  trenchant but it too will make the point that unless and until HMG rebuilds its in-house skills base it cannot deliver succes.  

I have spent the last couple of days in Edinburgh at the conference of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing. My last blog entry. (typos and all) illustrated what happens when you try to blog over wifi on a crowded train with the sun glinting on the screen of your netbook and  he connection going on and off (for no apparent reason to do with tunnels or cuttings) 

At the conference some of the lead members of CPHC and of the new BCS Academy (announced in Edinburgh) agreed to help the first draft of athe Information Society Alliance -EURIM  briefing for the new intake of MPs on skills issues- provided I sent them a model. I promised to send them a copy of the  EURIM paper in skills policy. “Reskilling Europe for the Information Society“, published in September 1997, almost immediately after the current Government came to power. It was widely welcomed and agreed but is now seriously dated. It is, however, interesting to see not only how accurate and prescient it was but also how much and how little, has changed. I also promised to send also them some more recent material in overlapping areas to illustratate the format we are now using: on planning and procurment (summary and paper and on value of information (summary and paper).

The aim is to then invite some of the parlimentary candidates who have already expressed an interest in this area to help with a short order review after the election. Those who were unsuccesful are feeling flat and unloved. Those who are successful will be equally shell-shocked but will be thinking seriously about how they can make a difference – and who will help them do so. 

I came away from the CPHC conference greatly heartened by some of the proposals to rebuild interest in schools in the basic disciplines of problem solving: such as Serious fun with computer science ,wi th the use of Magic Tricks and Game Shows to introduce the use of alogirthms and with validated, assessed and timetabled “ambassador” programmes for undergraduates. The ideas are not new – but the professionalism of those doing the implementation is new. So too is the scale and nature of industry support from players like Google and Microsoft.

However, too much of what was said of the problems we face today, for example about the lack of posts for new graduates in parallel with massive demand for, and shortages of, those with two years experience, could have been lifted straight from Computer Manpower in the 80’s (published by NEDO in 1980.

More-over the “solution” can be found in the preface of the National Compjuting Centre “Basic Training in Systems Analysis”, the 1969 write-up of the modular sandwich programme to address the skills shortages idendentified in 1967. That handbook spends approximately 180 pages on identifying the needs that systems are to meet and designing the processes to meet that need. There is only about 50 pages on Hardware and software – and that includes  assessing whether the technologies proposed can deliver the through-put and response times being specified.  That remains about the right balance between process and technology. “It’s the wetware stupid”. Systems that are not built around the people processes are a waste of money at best and a morale-destroying, delivery-destruction programme at worst. 

Those responsible at the political policy level for UK public sector ICT education and training programmes appear to have learned almost nothing over the thirty years since I managed to get the Micros in Schools programme written into the policy back-up documents and DTI brief for who-ever won, back in 1979. I do not think they were even listening. The messages did not get to their level.

Those at the top still lip service to employer involvement and then fail to give the Sector Skills Councils the resources and authority to not only involve employers but to do serious market reseerch into their evolving needs. They then wonder why so much of their spend is wasted. 

Has this changed? It does not look so from the manifestos- but they are only the tip of the iceberg of thinking that will determine the policies that will be followed, or not, after the election. There are some encouraging signs behind the scenes – but do not take them on trust.

The campaign and the hustings, local as well as national, are your opportunity to help make a difference. The apathetic, like the silent majority, get what they deserve – ignored