With a general election called for 7 June the IT industry is facing a classic Catch 22 dilemma. Does it continue to press those in power on issues such as skills, Internet legislation and local freedoms, or does it switch to talking about investment for a truly connected society, business success and the future of UK plc? The latter cannot happen without the former, which would not be an issue without the latter.
The press and pundits are predicting what the key day-to-day issues will be and there is a reluctance to focus on the bigger agenda, which is distressing. It is now, when e-anything is out of favour, and when the Internet is a dirty word, that our future as leaders in the new economy will be shaped.
So, in itself, IT will not be a key election issue, for four main reasons:
- There are few votes in it. Elections are won or lost on simple clarity - who will tax most, and who will spend those taxes in the way most electors agree with? IT is complex, misunderstood, and very unattractive to talk about in sound-bites.
- There is no scandal. Unless you know different - have you taken a phone call from Peter Mandelson lately, perhaps seeking a passport for someone with those IT skills you really need? Unless there are back-handers, political gain or stuffed envelopes, no chance.
- Our ability to lobby. Many groups have been speaking to MPs for two years, and although we are making progress, there is a long way to go. As a user [sic] community we lack cohesion and bite. The supplier industry has huge influence, however, and as a combined group, we can do a lot more.
- MPs think of IT as simply technology. Unlike our CEOs, who are screaming with one voice to focus on what the technology does, not what it is, the moment we mention IT to MPs they switch off. A case in point - I was sitting next to a prominent politician at dinner recently, telling him about the role of IT directors, their growing influence in UK companies and in the global economy. Halfway through dessert he asked if I knew anyone who could fix his PC.
And yet, the greatest irony is that whichever party comes to government, it will be IT that can change the way we are governed, forever. It is IT that will take every voter deep into the heart of decision-making, IT that will allow constituents access to knowledge previously only available in academic circles, and it will be IT that ensures true and total accountability. With this latter change, governments can demonstrate their ability to deliver on a consistent basis - they can, in effect, gauge their progress every day, not just every five years.
However, the bigger agenda is one of action over rhetoric. It is one that will place this country as the true pioneer of the new economy. E-government has to be the way of the future, a future that can see the UK as the leading location to do e-business.
These are the terms we must lobby on. There is too much at stake to talk simply about skills. We must discuss the bigger picture. We need to retain the right talent for our companies to remain competitive. We need simpler and less intrusive legislation to encourage entrepreneurs to create more jobs and train people in the new economy. And we need the next government to talk and act. People are judged by what they do, not by what they say.
On the surface, the election will do little for IT and IT leaders. Beneath it, however, the winning party will have a huge opportunity to drive forward the real e-agenda. By helping UK plc in this way, they will be taking the biggest step possible to avoid the consequence of inaction - governments in their present form becoming completely irrelevant.
David Taylor's Inside Track, a provocative insight into the world of IT in business, is published by Butterworth Heinemann. Tel: 01865-888180