Today I attended a conference hosted by the grandly titled ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age Network’. Forget the pompous sounding name, make no mistake – the ideas promoted by the PBA Network will rock our world for the better. The keynote address was given by David Cameron. One thing that was certainly ‘post-bureaucratic’ was the venue – a freezing old brick warehouse in Shoreditch where we all shivered our way through the morning.
The ‘big idea’ is that if you open up Government data to the masses then inevitably better decision-making, better behaviour and thus better government will follow. The more you think about it the more compelling this becomes. Remember what happened when the expenses data reached the public domain? Think about the change in behaviour from MPs that has driven. Reflect how much better a job the public and press did at auditing that data than the civil service ever managed. The tragedy is that none of it would have been possible without an illegal leak. The Government has always contrived to protect data from the taxpayer and the taxpayer has always been the poorer for it.
Openness of Government data changes the very nature of government. It empowers the citizen. It gives us the tools to make decisions locally based on facts rather than instinct. Anyone who has worked at senior level in business will have been taught that, yes, good decisions can be made by people with no more than good judgement and good instincts but the very best decisions are most often made by people with good judgement and a credible fact-base (i.e. data). Inversely, poor decisions are made when you swap the word ‘good’ for ‘poor’ in any one of those three variables (judgement, instinct, data). Sharing the whole fact-base rather than a cherry-picked sub-set of it gives us transparency. Transparency removes the political elite’s monopoly of access to ‘good’ data. This gives us the power to better assess politicians judgement and instinct. I’m sure that will terrify them.
For Cameron this new age isn’t just about technology or having ‘government data’ (really ‘taxpayer’s data’) available to us all on-line. He was careful to link this ‘big idea’ to his wider theme that it is not the ‘state’ that should try to solve our problems – it’s ‘society’. There is a big difference between the two. We are all passive slaves to the ‘state’ – we are all empowered leaders (if we wish to be) in ‘society’. His policies are aimed at allowing a renewed sense of ‘society’ to flourish after years of abrogation to the State. In much the same way he wants groups of parents with a coherent plan to set up their own schools outside of Local Authority control he now plans employee co-operatives taking over various other local services such as libraries and job centres. He also sees a revolution in planning law to let neighbourhoods have first call on their own development plans and greater use of technology to speed these processes up.
When you listen to these disparate policy threads being pulled together you realise that Cameron really does have a vision for Britain which has far more substance and genuine philosophy than his critics would dare admit. This philosophy is attractive to me because it is so closely aligned to my own. Unfortunately, only the geeky dweebs like me intuitively ‘get’ this stuff. The big problem is that Cameron hasn’t yet mastered the best language or killer phrases that lands the enormity of these ideas and this coming new age with the majority of the electorate. Cameron is often charged with being sound-bite over substance. The irony here is that he has real substance and he hasn’t yet found the sound-bite!
You cannot roll back technology. Make no mistake these changes are coming. We will either get there quickly because of government or we will get their slowly despite government. Change is difficult – you can embrace and adapt, or take the King Canute route. David Cameron’s instinct is to adapt and embrace the times he lives in. Just one example of speeding us down the right path is his x-prize style competition. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown has central control instincts to his core and he would continue to resist these forces and Britain would suffer for it.
The Conservatives need to work harder to get these messages across. Predictably, despite Cameron talking for 45 minutes on the subject today the only reportage of his appearance in the media I’ve seen is his reply to an off-topic question on the bullying PM. The vision thing doesn’t seem sexy enough for for the main-stream media to cover – we need to change this. This is ‘progressive’ politics in the purest sense of the word. We are talking about fundamentally shifting power from the state back to the citizen – that is the very essence of liberation. The new society we build can be an engine for solving many (not all) of the nation’s ills at very low cost to the taxpayer. The same way technology has lowered the barriers of entry to, and cost of doing business – it can be just as transformative on government. It is a new age, whilst our first steps into it may be ugly, painful and chaotic – on the other side it will be a golden age – but only if we have the bold leadership and the right policies to shepherd it in.