There was a time in the early to mid-2000s when I thought we needed a “digital manifesto” or “manifesto for technology” – something that would set out clearly and in plain English how technology would improve our public services. What a dumb idea that was: why would anyone publish a separate “digital manifesto” – any more than a political party would publish a separate “office furniture manifesto” or “electricity manifesto”?
The idea of a vainglorious and isolated “digital manifesto” now seems absurd. Political manifestos need to embed, not isolate, digital culture. Digital thinking needs to permeate every part of a political manifesto. The broken thinking that views technology as something separate – as a way of automating the past by merely delivering paper-based services “on to a screen” instead – is only going to be damagingly prolonged if technology and digital are kept in the outside back pocket of policymaking, isolated from the mainstream.
It’s hard to think of any public services not touched in a significant way by the digital age. From technology’s impact on work and unemployment to the way we educate and learn. And from the impact on the NHS of wearable devices monitoring our health in real time to its impacts on transport planning and patterns of commuting as we increasingly work more flexibly when, where and how we choose. “Digital” touches and changes almost everything of political consequence.
Yet government at present remains largely log-jammed by pre-digital policies, organisations, processes and functions. Why, for example, do we have the Alice in Wonderland existence of one department that takes our money away with one hand only for another department often to return it with the other? This is one of countless but significant idiosyncrasies inherited from yesterday’s world. They are incredibly disruptive to citizens (who suffer the consequences), businesses (who carry a considerable burden and cost administering such processes) and government (which wastes precious resources on operating massively duplicated and often redundant activities – when it should be prioritising those resources where they are most needed and most valued.)
Successful organisations integrate digital culture and values into their core: they don’t view it as some optional, lesser after-thought. Encouragingly, even the Civil Service Reform Plan is interwoven with digital thinking. It would therefore be negligent for “digital” to be left orphaned and ignored outside the mainstream manifestos, festering as a guilty last minute after-thought only considered once all other policies have already been agreed. Digital thinking should be embedded as an essential lever of public service reform that enables government to refocus resources on its most pressing social, economic and human responsibilities.
The real test in the run-up to May 2015 will be the extent to which we see digital culture woven into an enriching, golden braid throughout the various party manifestos – not retained as a hairy “digital manifesto” wart on the side. It will be instructive to discover just how many of our political parties truly get “digital” and its significance for our public services – and how many prefer to inhabit yesterday’s world.
[From June 2009 – Jerry Fishenden quits Microsoft to develop ‘technology manifesto’]