Chi’s article in the Guardian: Technology must enable people-powered services

This article was published in the Guardian on 21 March 2013 

Jemima Kiss recently called for long-sighted and informed politicians in the technology debate and accused Labour of missing a trick by not recognising the social values of the web.

And I would have agreed, had I not been preparing to launch our Digital Review of Government to address just that – technology’s role in the people-powered public services that Ed Miliband spoke of last month, developing the evidence and detailing the vision to bring about digital government which is both progressive and effective.

Like Jemima I believe the web is essentially liberalising, but to be progressive it must also to be inclusive and this government is entrenching the digital divide.

I was struck by the critiques of government that she cited – Paxman saying today’s politicians just wanted to be in charge and an entrepreneur saying we are reluctant to lead. There is an essential contradiction there and perhaps the best way to answer that is with politicians who want to put the people in charge.

That is what an Ed Miliband government is offering.

Labour’s history, our roots, are in the empowerment of people. All too often government is something done to the people. Digital government must not be like that.

I worked as an electrical engineer in ICT for 23 years before I entered parliament, mainly building out new technology in the private sector. There were plenty of competing visions for how the web would disrupt business and the products and services people buy – turn value chains upside down and make business models obsolete.

In boardrooms across the world terms like ‘disintermediation’, ‘co-opitition’ and ‘clicks and mortar’ were bandied around, along with my own personal favourite: ‘in the internet gold rush you don’t want to be digging for gold but selling shovels’.

As Jemima says, we are now seeing the consequences of that analysis. The high street has changed radically; music downloads are overtaking physical sales and the UK has the most avid online shoppers in the world. For many, social media is the only media and every brand is only a click away.

But the relationship between government and the governed has not changed. The citizen value chain is still the same as it ever was.

And Jemima is right to say there is no popular vision for that transformed relationship – except perhaps the North Atlantic libertarian view of government as a small app on some great neo-liberal web.

This government has made progress on digital with its Government Digital Service, GDS, helping get more data online and improve services like renewing your tax disc. But it sees digital service as primarily a cost stripping exercise and it has effectively ignored digital inclusion and empowerment. This is why I am increasingly faced with vulnerable people in real distress because, for example, they can’t sign on online. And whilst people may have a choice of which broadband provider to use, if they can afford it, they can’t use it to help create their own social care or local bus network. That’s hardly power to the people.

So what is the Labour vision of digital government?

The internet and big data should lead to more direct, horizontal – as opposed to vertical – relationships that enable individuals to redress the balance of power with governments, big companies and institutions.

But it requires the right infrastructure and architecture to drive digital transformation through local and national government and the right policies and rules to ensure citizens are in control.

We are clear that digital government without digital inclusion is a return to a 19th century vision of democracy amongst a narrow elite. We are equally certain that the experience of the private sector cannot simply be applied wholesale to the public – we are not looking for citizen clubcard.

That is why the Digital Government Review is complemented by the UK Digital Skills task force led Maggie Philbin, the Creative Industries and Digital Economy review by John Woodward and the ICT Procurement Review led by Alexis Cleveland. And all this in the context of our zero-based budgeting review.

We do have some interesting examples of how digital empowerment could work in practise. In Newcastle we have just finished piloting Chain Reaction, an adult social care programme in which personal budgets are used not for individualised day care but shared activities – like a trip to the cinema – co-producing care based on sharing preferences and capabilities.

So we start the review by asking for evidence of where digital government is working, where it should be praised as a model for other parts of the public and even private sector.

But we will also be asking for evidence of where it has failed or been poorly executed, disempowering people and turning them off from their government.

Under the guidance of an advisory board with wide ranging experience and with contributions from diverse stakeholders across the country, the review will deliver a framework for transformative digital government together with concrete policy proposals to make digital services work for the many – under, in Jemima’s words, ‘a strong and technologically confident Labour’.

The Digital Government Review team welcome contributions

The review’s independent, non-partisan Advisory Board members will include:-

– Peter Ingram, managing director of Touchstone Consulting and previously CTO of Ofcom and BT Retail

-Stephen King, partner at Omidyar Network

– Piers Linney, co-CEO of cloud service provider Outsourcery (and also a Dragon on the BBC’s ‘Dragon’s Den’)

– William Perrin, founder of Talk About Local

– Cho Oliver, director of Liquid Steel and previously CIO of European Oil Trading at BP

– Vicki Shotbolt, founder and CEO of The Parent Zone

– Jeni Tennison, technical director of the Open Data Institute

– Graham Walker, CEO of Go ON UK


Digital Government Review on Twitter at @diggovreview and online

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