The issues making IT a political hot potato

With an election on the horizon, IT has shifted from the wings to centre stage, says Mark Taylor

For the first time, it looks as if IT will become a significant political battleground at the next election, says Mark Taylor.

With an election on the horizon, Labour and the Conservatives are increasingly homing in on issues they believe will win them votes. Nothing unusual in that, but what is remarkable this time is that IT is heading for centre stage.

Never before has technology been considered political but, after a long string of government projects that most observers would characterise as failed or failing, absurdly late and obscenely expensive, tech has earned its place on the agenda.

Technology is political because it can be a measure of a government's competence and its financial acumen — both key issues in an election.

Transformation programme
Consider the NHS, where the IT project at the core of the government's transformation programme is in big trouble. In normal times these failings would be bad, but in the middle of the worst recession in modern times they are disastrous.

As both main parties begin to lay out their IT policies in public, deep and traditional political fault lines are being exposed. You could characterise them as the centralised state control of Labour versus the individual freedom and self-determination of the Conservatives.

In wealthier times, the Labour Party found in technology the perfect outlet in for its natural proclivities. Doing enormous deals with a handful of vendors, Labour set out on its 'transformational' path. Grandiose projects to look after the people and protect them against threats from criminals — and even from themselves.

They created ID cards, the Passport Office database, the Department for Work and Pensions database, the national children's database, the NHS database, the DNA database, the Criminal Records Bureau child-protection database, the number-plate recognition database, the mobile-phone call database. You get the point. Information of every kind about UK citizens is being collected with an insatiable appetite.

Labour feels no qualms in admitting that, through technology, it is seeking "a deep truth about the citizen based on their behaviour, experience, beliefs, needs or desires", according to Sir David Varney, Gordon Brown's adviser on public service transformation.

Depending on your political persuasion, that objective is either a monumental undertaking for the good of the people or an increasingly sinister folly.

The even-handed approach would be nice, but when the Conservatives were last in power, we were struggling with the idea of networking Windows 95 computers and only a few weird geeks were babbling about vast global virtual networks. We cannot talk of 'what it was like under the Conservatives'. We can only speak of what Labour has done and speculate on what the opposition would do, or say they will do, if they obtain power.

The Conservatives have only recently found their voice on public IT. Unfortunately that voice is not yet clearly heard or sufficiently understood.

Open-source software
The Conservative Party appears to be genuinely interested in free, open-source software. To begin with its motivation was simply looking for huge savings where the incumbent government was spending billions on proprietary software — most of it with Microsoft.

It is likely that money can be saved by moving the public sector to open-source software and away from proprietary packages. Shadow chancellor George Osborne was the first major politician to state this belief unequivocally in public.

Unfortunately most voters have never heard of open-source software, and since elections need to be fought on populist issues, that insight is as yet useless to them. It may be a secret weapon, but it is not in itself a message.

To get their message across, reasonably enough the Conservatives have focused on the giant centralised NHS database project because a lot of people have heard about it, and because people care about the NHS.

The Conservatives have said three things about this database: it costs too much; they will scrap it if elected; and personal data such as health records should belong to individuals, not to the state.

Dystopian nightmare
The Conservatives are running into precisely the same issue run into by open-source advocates — the old way of doing things with a big proprietary vendor is easy to understand, even when it looks like a dystopian nightmare straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The new way of doing things, with open standards, open source and open data are hard to communicate, and prone to being misunderstood.

The Conservatives have fresh technology ideas that chime with their small-governance, low public-sector cost philosophy and at first glance should work. They show fewer tendencies to court the massive proprietarist and neo-proprietarist vendors, all to the good — but opposition and government are two different things.

In any case they have a communication mountain to climb to get their points across, and who knows how these new ideas will go down with the post-20s part of the electorate.

As chief executive of Sirius Corporation, Mark Taylor has been instrumental in the adoption and rollout of open-source software at some of the largest corporations in Europe, including a growing number of companies running exclusively on free software, end to end, server to desktop. A direct participant in some of the leading enterprise open-source projects, Taylor is also a well-known authority on all aspects of the open-source phenomenon. Follow Sirius on Twitter.