Is Gordon Brown’s Plan for a Digital Future Real or Just ‘Web Wash’?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

gordon brown digital speech key phrasesGordon Brown unveiled his plans for Britain’s digital future yesterday with the goal to make Britain the leader in the digital economy by 2020. Brown split his plan into three phases:

First to digitalise – to make Britain the leading superfast broadband digital power creating 100 per cent access to every home;

Second to personalise – seizing the opportunities for voice and choice in our public services by opening up data and using the power of digital technology to transform the way citizens interact with government;

Third to economise – in the Pre-Budget Report we set out our determination to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.

Brown talked about superfast broadband for every household;  250,000 new jobs in the digital and creative industry , a transparent government giving the people of Britain input into politics, the launch of ‘mygov’ – an open source website using linked data (semantic web) so citizens can pay taxes and book hospital appointments all from one place, and Sir Tim Berners Lee heading up a new Institute of Web Science.

Brown has certainly dropped in some current digital terms, and possibly the most influential person in the development of the web (Sir Tim Berners did invent the web) but has he shown a real understanding of the digital environment?  Or is he using the potential technology as an opportunity to re-brand the government as open and transparent just in time for the general election?

Brown said:

“I want Britain to be the world leader in the digital economy which will create over a quarter of a million skilled jobs by 2020; the world leader in public service delivery where we can give the greatest possible voice and choice to citizen… the world leader in the new politics where that voice for feedback and deliberative decisions can transform the way we make… policies and decisions.”

Brown labelled his plans as “New Politics”. An Interesting term which echoes Tony Blair’s “New Labour” from the 1997 campaign. This is a brave but essential move by the prime minster;  essential after a year of expense scandals and an all time low for the labour party. Brave because if he really does embrace the technology available and delivers on these promises the face of politics will change and become much more accessible to the population.

It is a tall order to believe that the voice for feedback can transform the way policies and decisions are made. How exactly is this feedback going to be documented, incorporated into their decisions and presented to the public throughout the whole process? Only with a clear track of all contributions will this “New Politics” be transparent.

I was very excited with the inclusion of Sir Tim Berners Lee, one of the greatest innovators within digital. He did invent the web and is one of the driving forces behind linked data (semantic web). During this part of the speech Brown said:

“And we will invite universities and private sector web developers and companies to join this collaborative project.”

Well I would hope so. The institute will not work without the inclusion of Universities and private sector developers.  The universities are training the young talent who are tomorrow’s workforce and the private sector developers and creative’s are pushing the boundaries of technology.

Apart from the BBC website the majority of public sector digital platforms are tired and out of date. With the BBC cutting their budget we could see one of the UK’s finest examples ( of well executed digital design and embraced technology disappear out of existence.

Brown should be insisting that private sector companies are involved in the institute, it will not work being wrapped up in public sector politics alone.

Brown also talked about savings of £11biliion.

“We set out our determination to find £11 billion of savings by driving up operational efficiency, much of it enabled by the increased transparency and reduced costs made available by new technology.”

The technology available has the potential to streamline all government processes and make considerable savings. It always has but will the planning and implementation of this “new politics” scheme make savings difficult to achieve?

Online and technological advancements evolve at such a speed that even private sector digital agencies and organisations struggle to keep up with. The government will need to adjust with the technology as it evolves. This is something I have little faith in the government being able to achieve, For example we are yet to see if the new NHS computer system which cost £12.7 billion can succeed. The completion date has already been delayed by four years and the system is yet to work correctly in a single hospital. This is not much of a success story to base future IT / digital plans on!

Superfast broadband took up a big chunk of the speech.

“Superfast broadband is the electricity of the digital age. And I believe it must be for all – not just for some.”

I agree at this moment in time, but will this be the case in ten years? Will every household even own a landline by 2020? After 18 months of advanced enhancements in the mobile web (the iPhone being the main catalyst) is it not possible to consider that people will be completely wireless in 2020 operating online through the airwaves rather than the wired connections?

I think this brings me to my conclusion. There are so many parts of this speech (I just touched on a few) which pricked my ears and made me listen. And I don’t think I have ever heard the Prime Minister sound as in touch with the digital world as he did yesterday. Talking about linked data (sementic web), open source platforms and the domesday book… But this was the Prime Minister talking rather than delivering. Setting out plans over a ten year period is a dangerous route to take, when working with digital technology, unless you have a proven track record of adjusting with trends, technology and the digital environment as it evolves. Setting smaller targets and goals over a shorter time period would allow the government to flow with the trends and embrace the changes. But smaller targets are not going to win votes.

I really hope some of these plans are implemented and make a difference to the UK population, but I feel the speech might have been more about winning votes through re-branding the government as open, transparent and trust worthy.

Transcript of Gordon Brown’s speech

  • Sarah

    I think there are two major things to think about here.

    There has not been any successful government major IT projects but plenty of multi hundreds of million pound disasters. So they need to ensure that not only is the privater sector included, but the small to medium businesses not just the massive corporations that have spectacularly failed at every attempt so far.

    Even in 10 years time in this country, we will not be seeing the broadband speeds around the country that are currently enjoyed in Korea today.