When IT fails to meet politics: why non-discussions at 2014 party conferences were so dangerous

 Antony Walker’s summary of the differences between the Labour, Conservatives and LibDem conferences  on the TechUK website Is excellent but should  be read alongside a rather less polite commentary in the Register on the similarities between them. There are overlaps between the indivduals involved in the “Number One in Digital” exercise, (which he aptly describes as a “Beta version” of a policy study) and those who have volunteered to help the Conservative Technology  Forum Digital Infrastructure working group (the second of the CTF policy studies to get under way).  Both groups mix digital enthusiasts and political activists with “determined optimists” (scarred from trying to deliver improvements in practice), although the balance is different. 

The bigger differences are, however, within the parties.

They reflect tensions between the different interest groups trying to influence politicians of all parties. They particularly reflect a growing gulf between the lobbyists of currently dominant suppliers and the electorate – the users whose needs their clients claim to meet, while not listening to their concerns or, worse, patronising them. “You can tell some-one from IT, but will they listen.”  

Most of the world is now on-line . It has lost its naive faith in the good will, let alone competence, of its current suppliers. Antony Walker may well be correct in thinking the Labour Party gives a higher priority to those who lack the skills to use conventional PC-based technologies but activists in all parties appear equally concerned about those who cannot get a connection or signal that is fit for purpose for transactions over mobiles. I was genuinely delighted with his perception of the embrace of a “Schumpeterian model of discontinuity”  within Conservative thinking (by original discipline I am an economic historian). But this can also be found within the other parties. Schumpeter, like Marx, believed in the death of capitalism and UKIP supporters would argue  that the Westminster village has sold out and only they believe in “capitalism not corporatism

The similarities between the mainstream parties should facilitate co-operation in identifying who is lobbying for what and why. But we need to remember that the stakes may be even higher than the untaxed $billions currently haemorrhaging from the UK into offshore tax havens or supposedly being lost to piracy. We need to address the issues that divide the industry and set the “digital by default” and “big data” enthusiasts against the bulk of the electorate, (if research by IPSOS Mori is to be believed). We also need to address the  practical issues of delivery that set both Local Authorities and the “Silos of State” (and their respective Shadow  Ministers) against the Cabinet Office (and the Shadow Cabinet Office team).

For the second year running IPSOS  MORI and the Royal Statistical Society organised event at all three parties using data analysing public trust in various groups. This year the analyses distinguished between trust in organisation as a whole and trust in their ability and/or willingness to look after our personal data.  The “trust deficit” for internet service providers was greater than that for government and significantly greater than that for law enforcement. The shows clearly now much the public dislike and distrust the advertising funded business models of Google, Facebook and  Twitter but feel they have no choice.  That is a very dangerous position for even dominant players to be in. It helps explain why George Osborne singled out the tax avoidance behaviour of the technology companies 

Antony Walker mentions the LibDem enthusiasm for a Digital Bill of Rights. This appears to be shared across the rank and files of all parties (although the IPSOS Mori data  is not split by political allegiance). David Willetts led a very informal Conservative Technology Forum  discussion that was supposedly to be about Cybersecurity but homed in on the need to reconcile the privacy, surveillance, confidence and choice agendas in ways that would help position the UK as a globally trusted location of choice.

One of the more unpleasant messages for the ISP and Internet communities is that UK voters appear to trust GCHQ rather more than they do Google and to trust the Metropolitan Police (for all its problems) rather more than they do Microsoft. It also appears that they would prefer to support effective action against on-line predators than protect an increasingly illusory anonymity and support information sharing across government while being higly suspicious about sharing between industry players or between government and industry.
Were UKIP to offer user choice, in line with such priorities as part of a technology manifesto reflecting  views common to  ream which won them the European elections in May. the response of the other parties might well cause industry lobbyists  to pay rather more attention to the need for realistic responses to Sir Tim Berners-Lee‘s call for a Magna  Carter  for the web. He put that call into commercial and political context   in his address to the Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Common Council of the Corporation of London when he accepted  his honorary freedom  It was the first event I have attended as a Court Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists and it was good to see how well his challenging comments went down. His text does not appear to be available on-line (an odd piece of censorship given that, as part of the ceremony,  it was formally entered into the official roll of the City in front of several hundred  witnesses) but he built on the past role of London, working with its peers, from the days of the Hanseatic League onwards, in imposing international agreed standards of behaviour on the governments  of the day.
Another thread of discussion during the reception in the crypt undeer the Old Library after his speech, was the state of play with campaign being run to improve the quality and speed of broadband connections available to small firms in the City  That leads me back to a topic that was almost taboo at the party conferences: Broadband. When  I asked the audience at the informal launch of the CTF Digital Infrastructure study  if they were content with their broadband less than half a dozen hands went up. When I asked if the were fed up with their service, about 30 hands went up. The other half of the audience was disenfranchised, having a glass in one hand and a plate of sandwiches in the other. There is a strong groundswell of political discontent, particularly among those trying to put their SMEs on-line or to grow high tech businesses. 

There was similar frustration among those pressured to use “digital by default” public services over lines that freeze or go down when they try to download documents from government websites or complete transactions on-line.   It may be no accident that UKIP, which is said by many to be more effective than the mainstream parties in its use of social media, appears to be gaining strength in areas with poor broadband.  The digital infrastructure issues do, however go well beyond “mere”  broadband and my own views on the scale of change under way are now on record .

All three party conferences featured events on skills and training, particularly apprenticeships and the cost of education. The issue of employers who import skilled staff rather than train their own is another area where there was a disconnect between IT industry lobbyists and the party faithful.  Conservative and Labour MPs may express support in private for a “smart immigration” policy but few would dare do so in public – unless and until the concepts are fleshed out, particularly the means of deterring and reducing abuse, as with the group of “skilled programmers” with impeccable paper qualifications, who lost contact with their courier and were discovered to be almost illiterate, with little English and no computer knowledge.     

The pressures are mounting for an exercise which  addresses the reasons why we have yet another round of domestic skills shortages and (or rather mismatches) and finds constructive ways forward for a world in which career paths and R&D teams are increasingly global and UK universities depend  on fees from overseas students. Unless the mainstream parties find realistic policies which address both skills and immigration we risk pressure to add further layers  of  irrational, ineffective and counter-productive controls, which deter those whose skills and enterprise we want while allowing in those we do not.  Hence the reason the CTF 21st Century Skills working group is tasked to try to address the meaning of “smart immigration” as well as the means of breaking out of ground hog day.

Once again, however, this is an exercise that is much better addressed on an all-party basis and, as requested at the first meeting of the Digital Policy Alliance skills group, I have summarised the material I have on file in a submission to the current House of Lords enquiry  There are some obvious ways forward that could command consensus support across all political parties but these are incompatible with the current staffing models of several major  technology employers.  Hence the need either to persuade those employers to help pilot the business models of the future or to help their, as yet, embryonic future competitors put them out of business.

Perhaps that is where there is a real difference between the parties – “persuade” and “help” rather than “plan” or “regulate” . But, in practice, even that difference is more imaginary than real. Meanwhile UKIP would  argue that the big difference is that they wish to see such issues debated in public rather than behind doors in Westminster.

They will have that wish, because, for good or ill, the 2015 election campaign is now under way. Remember that those who do not speak out get stitched up. Join the party of your choice and be active including via their policy forums. 

P.S. I have just been browsing the most recent Yougov. Apparently over 80% think taxing Google properly would be a good idea but only 20% think HMG will succeed. Half support more Internet regulation and nearly 70% support more surveillance to help prevent terrorism. Interestingly while 60% feel that social media have had a positive effect on society, only 14% feel it has been very positive. I was surprised to discover just how well my own prejudices (alias well informed opinions) gell with the majority of Yougov respondents. I had thought I was more of a maverick but found myself in the minority on only a handfull of issues – some of which surprised me – such as the strong support for windmills.