Brown Moves into the Post-Bureaucratic Age

22 03 2010

Gordon Brown’s announcement this morning (essentially a response to the recent launch of the Conservative’s Tech Manifesto) will raise few eyebrows. All the usual stuff about “Britain to be the world leader in the digital economy” was interspersed with some new ideas, and a new tone about how Labour conceives of technology’s role in government and the public sector. I have set out below how the parties’ approaches compare.

Government Data

The Conservatives have committed to “create a powerful new ‘Right to Government Data’, enabling the public to request – and receive – government datasets.” They explicitly included “the monthly online publication of local crime data on a street-by-street basis, education and health performance data and detailed information about all of DFID’s projects and spending programmes including the results of impact evaluations.”

In a move surely prompted by Liam Maxwell’s successful efforts in Windsor and Maidenhead council, they also promised to “publish online the energy consumption of all buildings in Whitehall.”

Gordon Brown spoke of “opening up data and using the power of digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government”; “in the autumn the Government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies – a “domesday book” for the 21st century.” This will be run by the National Archives, and presided over by a new Open Data Board.

Brown did not go as far as to call for a ‘Freedom of Data Act’, but he did say that “There will be an expectation that departments will release each of these data sets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.”

Brown also announced £30m for the creation of a new institute of ‘Web Science’, based out of the University of Southampton ( http://webscience.ecs.soton.ac.uk/dtc ), and headed up by Brown’s impressive open data team, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Britain’s Broadband Infrastructure

The Conservatives have pledged to “be the first country in Europe to extend superfast 100 mbps broadband across most of the population.” Their solution is to “unleash private sector investment” by “opening up network infrastructure, easing planning rules and boosting competition”. If this approach fails, they will “consider” using some of the BBC licence fee dedicated to digital switchover. The Conservatives presented this as part of a broader modernization of ‘networks’, including high-speed rail and electricity.

Labour gave a different pledge: “to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home.” Mr Brown tasked Martha Lane Fox (Digital Inclusion Champion) to establish a new “digital public services unit” in the cabinet office. The theme of Brown’s speech tied in with the theme of ‘digital inclusion’: “21% of UK adults have never accessed the internet. That’s over a fifth trapped in a second tier of citizenship.” These four million people are also among the heaviest users of public services, and PWC have estimated that the government can save £900m per year just by bringing these people online.

Brown (nearly) jumped on the bandwagon in calling internet access a human right, but settled for “a fundamental freedom in the modern world”, and “the electricity of the digital age”. It was on these grounds that he argued that we cannot support a broadband rollout model driven by “profitability alone”, as he argues the Tories will.

Brown also pushed the ‘digital divide’ agenda hard – a phrase which used to be associated with the difference between digitally-developed and undeveloped countries. His 50p phone line tax is, he claims, a very small price to pay for a universal network.

Transparency and Cost Savings

The Conservative pledge is concrete: “we will publish online, and in an open and standardised format, every item of central government and Quango expenditure over £25,000. In addition, from 1 January 2011, a Conservative government will publish government contracts for goods and services worth over £25,000 in full, including all performance indicators, break clauses and penalty measures.”

In a smart move to placate the Eurosceptic elements in the party, Jeremy Hunt also promised to “increase the accountability of EU spending by publishing online details of every UK project that receives over £25,000 of EU funds.”

Labour claim they can find £20 billion of savings, and (in a line which echoes the Tories ‘public consultation phase’) intend “to harness new technology to deliver a major step forward in giving the public a greater influence over the Whitehall policy-making process.” In another Tory echo, Brown let slip that Darling will be announcing a 20% cut in the senior civil service paybill in Wednesday’s budget.

Brown also claimed that the new digital economy will create more than 250,000 skilled jobs by 2020.

Public Services

The Conservatives, to their detriment, have not yet tackled the impact of technology, the digital economy, or the post-bureaucratic age on public services as explicitly as Labour.

Labour presented a new service: Mygov – which aims to make “interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping”. In a power-shift which the Tories may see as a direct assault on their policy territory, Brown announced: “rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs.”

Brown also had some rhetoric which could have come from the Cameron PBA playbook: “an enormous shift from what many have in the past seen as a too paternalistic, closed Whitehall, to an open, interactive responsive enabler where citizens personalize, shape, and ultimately control their services.” Other than overkill from the number of buzzwords he can include in a single sentence, the public may questions whether public services are too ‘paternalistic’ and ‘closed’ now, rather than at some elusive point ‘in the past’.

Moving into ‘power shift’ areas which David Cameron has seen as his own is a risky strategy for Brown; it sits well with the public and presents a positive message in a campaign about cuts. However, at this point Brown is very much the follower.

What the Parties Left Out:

Neither party tackled the controversial Digital Economy Bill. It merited one small paragraph in the Tories’ Tech Manifesto, and enjoyed a similarly low profile in Brown’s speech. It is a thorny issue for the leaders, but one which they must address if they are to be taken seriously on these issues.

Tories might point out that Mr Brown included nothing on legislating to create a Right to Government Data; nothing on a level playing field for open source software; nothing on spending transparency; and nothing at all on ending the track record of Labour IT project failures and waste. One may also question Brown’s own commitment to transparency and handing away power.

A more generous critic might view Brown’s speech as a big step in embracing the opportunities of the post-bureaucratic age. The link between universal broadband and ‘not leaving anyone behind’ is a strong message (which perhaps the Tories should have promoted), and will tie in with Labour’s presentation of the Tories as the party of the ‘haves’. The ‘Domesday Book’ argument for opening government data is slightly misguided (William the Conqueror did it, in part, to tax the people as much as he could), but Labour’s late entry to the PBA party may have surprised many in its boldness and scope.

By Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)

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2 responses

31 03 2010
Platform 10 » Blog Archive » PBAge: Why Brown doesn’t – cannot – get it

[…] week Gordon Brown gave a speech where he tried to promote Labour’s PBAge credentials. Unfortunately, he missed the fundamental point of it being about people empowerment. Like an old […]

1 04 2010
Betapolitics

Interesting analysis but I think it suffers from either your wish to remain neutral or your hope that Gordon Brown really does buy into the PBAge agenda. Having read his speech I think he completely misses the point. PBAge is not just about technological advances. It is a philosophy for open government. Devolving power is not in his DNA and his attempt to buy into this agenda actually exposes how impossible it would be for him to fully embrace it. The MyPolice fiasco shows that the mentality of the state is the most important factor in PBAge’s success.

The choice at the next election is a significant one. It is only a David Cameron lead Tory government who can change the way the state governs.

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