Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Digitally remastering government

As the summer break beckons, hardworking thinktankers might feel better off taking time out from the brain strain of the previous 12 months. Having released its landmark work, The Condition of Britain, veteran ideas factory IPPR will no doubt wish to take a break and sit back, relax and watch some (if not all) of the report’s recommendations flow into the Labour party policy review.

But, elsewhere, in the running for the Most Ambitious-Sounding Research Project Award of the year (perhaps ever) is the thinktank Reform with its new research programme entitled no less than ‘How to Run a Country’. ‘Rather than look at reform of parliament and government separately,’ the tank explains, ‘we concurrently explore the role of parliament, ministers and the civil service; the allocation of responsibilities and coordination between departments as well as between central and local government; the skills and structure of the civil service; as well as the use of technology to improve service delivery and citizen engagement.’ Reform’s advisory board includes Labour member of parliament Frank Field and former Labour minister for health Norman Warner. Earlier this year Warner provoked controversy on the publication of a pamphlet for Reform in which he argued for the introduction of a monthly £10 ‘membership charge’ for the NHS, including an annual ‘health MOT’ for patients. Hugging closer to current Labour thinking was his proposal to rename and reform the NHS as the National Health and Care Service, with integrated health and social care. The symbolism of rebaptising the nation’s most-followed religion as the NHCS is not a prospect that has yet broken through into the public consciousness. But, were Labour to pursue it, along with such far-reaching reform, done well, it could constitute a refounding of the NHS to make it fit for 21st-century, rather than mid-20th-century, purposes.

But, back to the ambition of how to run a country: the fruits of Reform’s labours will follow a string of roundtables and an essay collection later in the year. So far, so traditional. But Reform’s inclusion of ‘the use of technology’ is notable, as more and more thinktanks put their heads down to examine the technological revolution we are living through. As right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange recently commented on the release of its Technology Manifesto, ‘Harnessed well, technology promises to deliver benefits and opportunities that were the dreams of science fiction just a decade ago. Mishandled or ignored, it risks unleashing new and damaging threats on a scale that we have barely begun to grasp. That is why it is imperative that politicians and policymakers think now about how technology will fit into the Britain they wish to build.’ The manifesto’s proposals include a target for the United Kingdom population to have the world’s highest rate of basic digital skills by 2020, and a target for the UK to attract 50 per cent of all software foreign direct investment in Europe.

Reform itself has also already been working in this area, having released a pamphlet called Disruptive Innovation in Public Services with a cross-party input including from Labour MP Meg Hillier and from representatives of business, local government and the NHS. The Labour party itself is not absent from this debate, with the Labour Digital group established last year. Its membership includes Progress vice-chair Seema Malhotra MP. But, as fellow member of its coordinating team Theo Blackwell lamented last month on ProgressOnline, Labour Digital has ‘warned about Labour being left behind in digital policy whether in relation to the UK economy or public services’ and bemoaned the ‘complete absence of discussion around digital public services and developments like “big data” in IPPR’s Condition of Britain’. IPPR’s allusion to Thomas Carlyle’s phrase ‘Condition of England Question’ has been pointed out on more than one occasion, as have accusations that Labour’s policy offer overall at times feels a tad retro. The potential for technology to narrow inequality in society is great; the chance that it might exacerbate it is high. In the meantime, jackdawing some of the Policy Exchange and Reform reports to try and tackle this might not be a bad start.


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Adam Harrison

is a councillor in the London borough of Camden

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