by Jerry Fishenden

Technology’s role in the future economic and social wellbeing of the UK

Jul 04, 2016
IT Strategy

The IT industry’s obsession with jargon has long tottered on the verge of Grammelot – the satirical gibberish language developed by travelling troubadours and minstrels in medieval times, and popularised through the works of the playwright Dario Fo.

Today it seems to have toppled drunkenly over that verge. Every repeated empty soundbite discredits and tarnishes our industry, from “blockchain” (solving all known problems in the world) to the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (an overused phrase that’s been around since the 1940s, recently dusted off by the World Economic Forum) to corporate exploitation of the poor (sorry, the “sharing economy”) to the new tycoons (oops, “innovators”) such as Uber.

We have the tired buzzword bingo of “disruption”, “digital”, “innovation”, “strategy”, “transformation”, “machine learning”, “cognitive computing”, “DevOps”, “Big Data”, “IoT”, “cloud”, “Digital Natives/GenX/Y/Millennials”, “the robots are coming” (what – oh, not again?). A self-serving Babel that spews endlessly from the PR departments of incumbent Corporates and unicorn start-ups. Our industry is consumed by an inferior Grammelot, lacking the satire, insight and humour of that great tradition.

Worse, this shallow techno-Babel is endlessly amplified by vacuous mynah bird “Industry Analysts” and Big Consultancy Partners. Like followers of a bizarre religious cult, they flock repeatedly towards “the new big thing” to loudly proclaim “It’s the Messiah!”, forming a vast echo chamber of empty self-justification and masonic magic quadrants which they inflict upon the innocent and gullible along with their PowerPoint libraries and eye-watering invoices.

Governments need to find the signal amidst this noise. But where do they turn? The current cadre of Chief Scientific Adviser (CSAs) are largely that ­- scientists – with few computer professionals amongst their number, despite the UK’s leadership in this area and technology’s significant and growing impact on public policy. Asking biologists, chemists and physicists to advise on complex issues of computer technology is about as useful as asking a CTO to handle spent nuclear fuel rods.

This long-standing deficit of expertise at the heart of government policymaking needs fixing. While there are many digital technology colleagues immersed in the bruising day-to-day battle to keep the lights on and improve public services, there is no technology equivalent in the public sector to the CSA community. A trusted team who can provide independent, impartial practical advice, research and insight into the changes to policy, processes, organisations and culture of the kind discussed in our book Digitizing Government.

It’s possible the new National Technology Advisor (NTA) Liam Maxwell – previously the Government Chief Technology Officer – may be the first step down this road, but it’s one solitary role spread thin across the whole of government. It will be challenged to provide the breadth and depth of guidance required. Either the CSA community needs an injection of computer technology expertise to broaden its knowledge and credibility, or a community of advisors needs establishing under the NTA.

Honest, critical friend technology advisors would help government escape the sub-Grammelot techno-Babel and provide access to expertise it current lacks. Impartial, jargon-free advice would help inform public policymaking at source, enabling technology to improve, rather than undermine, the economic and social wellbeing of the UK.