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Here are 63 million reasons why politicians need to take technology seriously

Few of our elected representative understand the importance of technology. That's a big problem for us - and them.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
The Houses of Parliament were built in the mid-nineteenth century; some politicians haven't updated their attitudes towards technology since then.
The Houses of Parliament were built in the mid-nineteenth century; some politicians haven't updated their attitudes towards technology since then. Image: Shutterstock

Last week, the think tank Policy Exchange published its own tech manifesto — an agenda it wants the UK's political parties to adopt ahead of the next general election, expected in May next year.

Policy Exchange's claims that the public sector could save as much as £24bn a year by rethinking the use of technology across local and central government. Among the recommendations set out in its manifesto is a commitment to universal broadband availability, improvements to the basic digital skills of the population, and a move to digital-by-default for government services. Other suggestions include increasing the amount of government data — including Ordnance Survey mapping — that can be freely reused.

Most of these recommendations make sense, but there is a broader problem that they can't fix: that few politicians have any interest in, or understanding of, technology issues.

It's not just me saying that — it's our politicians as well. At the launch of the Policy Exchange manifesto at Google Campus (a more optimistic backdrop than the usual mildewing Westminster committee room) some of the few politicians that do understand tech said Parliament needs to try harder.

Nadhim Zahawi MP, a member of the Number 10 Downing Street policy board, told the event: "The internet and technology is shaping the way everyone interacts transacts and reacts and has been doing so for at least a decade... well, everyone, that is, except government."

That has to change because government has to reflect the population it serves, he said — and that population is only going to get more tech-savvy and therefore have higher expectations of government services.

Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert referred to one parliamentary debate where a minister described an IP address as "an intellectual property address" as an example of politicians not grasping the fundamentals.

"Across all the parties there are a handful of MPs but only a handful who really get it. The vast majority of MPs simply do not get it," he said.

And yet politicians — whether we like it or not — have to be involved in some big decisions about technology.

Those decisions can't be left to the tech industry, which inevitably focuses on its own needs – maximising profits and, in particular, minimising tax.

Look at the strife in San Francisco which is being generated by inequalities of income and opportunity between the tech industry and the rest of the local community. That's hardly something we ought to replicate in the UK — although some argue it's happening already.

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah warned of the risk of an increasing digital divide, highlighting that the combination of new technologies and tough economic conditions is creating a real risk that a "large disenfranchised and disempowered underclass" will develop "while the privileged few of the geek-elite enjoy greater freedom and transparency".

And tech strategy can't be left to the tech employers either, because their vision is clouded by their short-term needs which may well conflict with the wider needs of society: for example, their use of offshore outsourcing in the past has significantly contributed to the lack of entry-level tech skills which they constantly complain about today.  

I'm not suggesting every MP should want to code their own app, but we need them to understand that the impact of new technology on society is significant and important; that our elected appointees have a responsibility to engage in and lead the debate here in order to benefit all 63 million of us.

There are also massive questions about state surveillance, the right to be forgotten, the future skills mix in this country, and more that won't be answered by politicians who laughingly dismiss boffins and techies.

The stakes are much higher, as Huppert points out: "This is actually an existential question; how will Britain earn its way in 2050, what is that we're going to do to have the rest of the world send money to let us have a good quality of life. And I can't see what it is if it's not about new technology — we're not going to become the great agricultural powerhouse of the world. It has to be around tech."

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