Chris Patten: Politicians have no grasp of technology

The former governor of Hong Kong has waded into the debate around lack of tech knowledge among politicians and its effect on government IT projects
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Former Tory politician Chris Patten has said that a fundamental lack of understanding in government is to blame for a rash of ill-thought-out technology projects and related legislation in recent years.

Lord Patten of Barnes was especially critical of the Government's ID card scheme, which is heavily reliant on technology. Speaking at the RSA Conference Europe on Wednesday, Patten said the scheme would not achieve one of its possible objectives of making borders more secure.

"I don't think ID cards make citizens more secure, or frontiers more secure. People would still have been blown up on the Tube last July if they'd had ID cards," he said.

He also criticised the support given to ID cards in 2003 by the then Home Secretary David Blunkett, calling the scheme a "populist Pavlovian Blunkett twitch". Blunkett resigned from the cabinet in 2005 over his involvement in political scandals.

Patten, a former EU Commissioner, was speaking at the three-day conference in Nice, France, on European business and technology.

Many politicians don't understand the technology issues that could affect government IT schemes, he said.

"Politicians have no sound grasp of technology issues — but politicians don't necessarily have a profound grasp of any issue. They rely on advisors for information on how to implement their broad intentions," Patten told ZDNet UK before the press conference. "You have to hope they're well advised."

Cisco's head of government affairs, Richard Allan, himself a former Liberal Democrat MP, agreed that politicians do not understand the technology they deal with.

"Most politicians don't understand technology, which is an increasing problem when increasing amounts of public money are being spent [on technology schemes]," he said. "A basic understanding of information systems would be helpful."

Allan said that just as politicians are expected to understand basic balance sheets when making a decision to spend public money, but not the intricacies of accountancy, so politicians should try to grasp the basics of information systems.

Technical advisors should also avoid jargon, he added. "The challenge is to develop a language politicians can understand, as well as politicians taking the time and trouble to understand it. What often happens is you get somebody speaking technical jargon to someone who doesn't understand the basics," said Allan.

Privacy campaigner Simon Davies, chairman of No2ID, agreed politicians aren't in touch with the issues underlying the technology issues they legislate on, and criticised the conditions in government that have allowed the situation to come into effect.

"Prime ministers and home secretaries are notorious for grandstanding on technology issues, while at the same time having difficulty setting their video recorders at home," said Davies.

"The NHS programme for IT and the ID cards scheme both stand as a testament to the Government's complete failure at forward planning [in technology schemes], and its inability to understand technology in the real world," Davies added.

According to Davies, the entire ID cards scheme was "dreamed up in a vacuum".

"[In 2003] the sole driver of the ID card scheme was Blunkett's obsession, but Blunkett himself didn't understand the technology," said Davies.

A spokeswoman for David Blunkett declined to comment on the extent of his understanding of the technology necessary to implement the scheme, but said: "The Government is pressing ahead with ID cards despite Mr Blunkett not being in government. He's very supportive of the scheme."

However, academics from the London School of Economics (LSE) criticised that ongoing governmental support.

"Tony Blair's ongoing belief in ID cards shows he has no sense of that technology whatsoever," said Dr Edgar Whitley of the information systems group at LSE. "The Home Office is the same. They haven't told anyone about when the technology will come or how it will work, and they haven't fully tested it."

Professor Ian Angell of the LSE said: "The complexity of the ID cards scheme means it's going to fall apart. Basically [the government has] gone beyond the limits of the technology. But you can't blame the politicians — they're just reflecting the zeitgeist."

Simon Davies also said that reliance on advisors could lead to conflicts of interest, if those advisors represented large technology companies who stood to gain on the implementation of IT schemes.

"Conflict of interest is a sleeping giant in technology," said Davies. "The risk of advisors capitalising on the ignorance of politicians becomes greater."

Davies said that government should pay more attention to select committees, such as the Science and Technology Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, before formulating legislation.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt has also added to the criticism around politicians' lack of IT knowledge.

"The average person in government is not of the age of people who are using all this stuff," Schmidt said at a public symposium hosted by the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board earlier this month. "There is a generational gap, and it's very, very real."

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