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Breakfast with the Minister

Sunday, October 1st, 2006 at 9:26 pm Written by:

Last Wednesday I got up at 6am to catch the train to Manchester in order to join some IPPR fringe breakfast meeting relating to the Labour Party Conference entitled “Ready for the e-generation? Digital inclusion and active citizenship in a networked age”. I had asked to be invited on the basis of my work with Publicwhip — an obvious incident of active citizenship in the networked age.

No one was particularly interested in what I had to say.

Around the table were representatives from various citizen groups, publically funded enterprises such as uk-online, overpriced educational IT suppliers, and evil corporations like Microsoft.

The meeting ran like a Parliamentary debate: the minister, Pat McFadden MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Cabinet Office, waffles on for half an hour, then the chair goes round the table so everyone gets to say something of what they want, and finally the minister sums up with more waffle, answering whatever points that he wants to address.

A lot of it was about social exclusion and getting deaf people to use the internet to access government services. One of the success stories, which several representatives referred to, was the 38 million quid DVLA website (no, I can’t tell where that number comes from) that allows busy housewives to pay their car tax online. Apparently this benefits 30 million people in the country who are car drivers. One of the consultants said this was a great success and a sign that the government needs to commit seriously more funds to all parts of IT. As usual, I can’t account for the quoted costs to within a factor of a thousand.

The point I made, which no one found interesting, was that the government may want active citizenship, but only in limited domains. It certainly is not interested in hearing what people have to say about the this country’s foreign affairs policy, or whether we continue to pose a threat to the existence of human life with our nuclear weapons.

If I had thought of it — which I didn’t, as usual — I would have referred to the car tax service and asked if, on the same website, they could list the total tax take through the vehicle licenses as well as the spend on maintenance road by road on a map so we all knew where said money was going. The information is available. Is this not somthing the public ought to be informed of when cash is demanded?

There was also the usual reference to the MPs gaming the system and asking more written questions and creating extra cost as a side-effect in order to prove their rankings. Not only is this an unproven allegation — the stats are all available on the site waiting for someone to actually analyze them as opposed to just talk about it — but it’s the number of questions that are properly answered that matter. If I had thought of it — which I also didn’t — I would have come prepared with the following Parliamentary question:

Michael Weir MP: To ask… what the value was of each IT contract awarded by the Prime Minister’s Office in each of the last five years; and who the contractor was in each case.

Patrick McFadden MP: The Prime Minister’s Office is an integral part of the Cabinet Office. The information for the Department cannot be produced in the form requested without incurring disproportionate cost…

My considered opinion is that the government has taken to creating a market for citizen interaction with their services on their terms. There is literally billions of pounds of public money pouring into it, although none of it will be available for projects that could hold them accountable, threaten their authority, or question their policies. So my comment to the Minister could have been completely correct in every possible way, but no one would care because they are there to find out what the government is intending to spend our money on in order to satisfy those contracts and make a living. It has nothing about what’s useful.

Almost by definition, worthwhile examples of active on-line citizenship will not be funded by the government, except by accident. This is not because the government is bloated, inefficient, and wrong — which is a common right-wing position — it’s that those who control the government will automatically cause it to serve their interests. If we want to get the accounts, we’ll have to do it ourselves.

Back to normal service shortly. Meantime, I’ve just got the Ministerial Whirl working again.

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