Are clueless politicians holding IT back?

The level of ignorance from Australian politicians about technology can be staggering. Here's some of the worst examples we've seen, and a short recipe for resolving the issue.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

(Credit: Stilgherrian.com)

commentary Politicians are notoriously clueless when it comes to technology. Indeed, a Parliament House staffer has previously told ZDNet.com.au that it's impossible to overstate their level of ignorance. But isn't it time they caught up with the rest of us?

On 19 October, for example, during Senate Estimates [PDF], Queensland Liberal Senator Ian MacDonald kept wanting to understand the speed and pricing of the National Broadband Network in terms of "the use of a PC for normal email traffic" — clearly unaware that email is far from bandwidth-intensive.

In the same debate about the cost of the NBN, Shadow Communications Minister Nick Minchin, another Liberal, asked: "Again, remind me, with optical fibre, you have to attach a unit to the side of people's houses, do you not?"

There was even ignorance on both sides of politics about the ownership of Australia's second-largest telco, as this bizarre exchange shows:

Senator Conroy: Does anyone know whether [Optus parent company] SingTel is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange?
Senator Minchin: What?
Senator Conroy: Does anyone know whether SingTel is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange?
Senator Minchin: That is nonsensical, too. On that, I do not own shares so pardon my ignorance as to whether every company is listed on the stock exchange.
Senator Conroy: I do not own shares either.

Conroy is actually one of the more IT-savvy people in parliament, yet it doesn't seem to have occurred to him — or the other senators, or their staff — to use the laptops in front of them to find the answer. Which is "Yes", by the way.

Politicians are in general relatively new computer users. It's only four years since Jackie Kelly, the former Liberal MP for Lindsay, was the first person to use a laptop on the floor of Parliament House, Canberra.

"In fact, the then speaker kicked me out for it," she said in her valedictory speech. "I am glad we [now] see things differently and have equipped this House for laptop use in the chamber."

Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair didn't even own a mobile phone until the day he left office in June 2007.

"When I lived at Downing Street I never had one," Blair is reported as saying. "I sent an SMS to a friend, but given my lack of technological knowledge I didn't realise the telephone hadn't identified me as the sender. I got an SMS back saying: 'But sorry, who are you?'"

In the US, Barack Obama's thoroughly modern insistence on using a BlackBerry triggered security concerns — the first time a President had actually wanted his own email device.

Part of the problem seems to be that more traditional politicians actively ridicule those who choose to use information technology.

On 1 June, Liberal MP Barry Haase told parliament, "I am not one of those technophiles who carries a laptop everywhere." This is despite his electorate of Kalgoorlie covering some 2,295,354 square kilometres of Western Australia, requiring extensive travel.

Even South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, just over half Haase's age, once chided Conroy, "I wonder if the minister could please be asked to table the laptop from which he was reading his ministerial statement."

As Conroy said in another Senate debate, "In an answer in the portfolio area of the Digital Economy, to be actually objecting to using a computer screen rather than a file and a piece of paper is a little bit embarrassing."

I'm not suggesting that politicians need to be programmers or systems administrators. As broadband minister, Senator Conroy no more needs to be able to debug Python or configure Exchange email routing than the defence minister needs to fly a jet fighter or even fire an assault rifle.

But politicians do need to know enough to make effective decisions about the issues they're discussing — and IT has been a core part of our society for decades now. Given that politics is about communication, sifting through vast amounts of documentation, and collaboratively creating policies, shouldn't politicians also commit to the same kinds of productivity improvement in their own jobs that they demand of everyone else?

Previously I've written that "I don't understand computers" is no longer an acceptable excuse for businessmen and suggested a checklist of the things managers should know.

Here's my first cut of a similar IT knowledge checklist for politicians.

  1. The structure of the telco industry, especially the difference between wholesale and retail providers in terms of who's responsible for support, fault rectification and billing. For Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull to ask of the NBN, "How many subscribers will it have", misses the difference between a wholesale and a retail network — despite him previously being one of the founders of ISP OzEmail. Yet I have yet to find a government member who realises they could have used that ignorance to score a political point.

  2. Units for measuring data and transmission speeds, such as gigabytes or megabits per second, without confusing bits and bytes, and how they equate to everyday tasks like streaming live video or making a Skype call. That's like knowing the difference between a million dollars and a billion, and how much real estate each could buy. Kevin Rudd's recent talk of "bandspeed" may have been just a slip of the tongue, but you don't make slips if you're familiar with the subject.

  3. The strengths, weaknesses, achievable speeds and cost implications of different connectivity methods such as ADSL, WiMax, FTTH, HFC, 3G and 4G — without having to know how they work, of course. That's like knowing the implications of diesel railways versus electric, or building a bridge versus a tunnel.

  4. The one-sentence meaning of common jargon, such as CRM, ERP, FTTH, phishing ... how far down should we drill?

  5. The broad development process of big IT projects, when it's impossible to say today what it'll cost to provide some specific component in four years' time.

  6. The meaning of open source and Creative Commons, and their implications.

  7. That the internet is not the web, and that it has uses beyond email, Facebook, downloading movies and watching porn.

Now all that said, I don't think we should call politicians "dumb" for not knowing this. It is complicated, and it does take an effort to learn. I'm just saying they should put in that effort.

Editorial standards