Tech policy must emerge from the silo

For the good of the nation, politicians must stop treating technology policy as a special interest area, says David Clarke

National technology policy remains stuck in the silo of special interests. For the good of all of us, it must be brought into the mainstream, says David Clarke.

IT needs to break out of the silo and take on the needs of the business, regardless of what 'business' constitutes. That need is obvious when you think about it, but for many years this was a barrier that seemed incredibly hard to surmount.

The report from Lord Carter published in June was the first attempt to bring disparate policy areas together, and it gave a visionary glimpse of the shape of a Digital Britain.

To tackle such a remit is almost an impossible job for one simple reason: it's not about a Digital Britain, but Britain, and how society will evolve under the relentless progress of technology.

And the array of subject areas covered by Lord Carter's report is dizzying. Everything from the sustainability of local newspapers to IT education, and technical measures for preventing illegal downloads. Previously these topics have been set apart from mainstream public policy, with some strange and contradictory results.

Digital participation
For example, while one part of government was extolling the importance of digital participation, another was considering enforced digital exclusion for relatively minor, but protracted, civil infringements. It was only through treating these subjects together that the contradiction became unavoidable.

Lord Carter was able to ask some very difficult questions. What does it really mean to move public services online? What does it mean if people cannot receive broadband? The idea of a minimum of 2Mbps for every home in the UK sounds unambitious unless you realise what a huge step forward this provision would be for many areas — and how unusual it is for a nation to take such a step.

However, businesses say they need more bandwidth, as was evidenced in July in a survey by the Communications Management Association, which is part of the British Computer Society (BCS).

Some big steps have also recently been taken, such as the recent work by the Power of Information project that involves BCS distinguished fellow Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Sir Tim will advise on how to create a single point of online access for government-held public data and how the government can use the internet to make non-personal data widely available.

Public-policy barrier
While the Digital Britain report is groundbreaking, we have not yet breached the barrier in public policy. It is unacceptable for a modern chief executive to be ignorant of the strategic use of IT — but the same also goes for politicians or senior civil servants.

While there is a flourishing IT profession within the civil service, which is growing in stature and capability, their policy colleagues are still learning to include them and seek their advice. We, together with industry, need to break the government's UK technology policy out of the silo of special interests and look at the bigger picture.

Many believe that the next Parliament will include a record intake of new MPs. Whatever jobs they hold now, they are likely to have encountered more IT than those MPs they may replace.

We will certainly be working with MPs, ministers and civil servants now and beyond the next election to ensure they are up to speed, because the future's not some fleeting glimpse beyond the horizon — it is right here on the doorstep.

David Clarke is chief executive of the BCS, the professional body for the UK's IT industry, representing over 65,000 IT professionals. Clarke took up his post at the BCS in May 2002 and has nearly 30 years' involvement with IT systems, first on the supply side with HP, DEC and Compaq, then as chief executive in the Virgin group of companies and Trinity Mirror.


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