It may be a slight disillusionment with the Big Society project, but I sense I am danger of becoming predictably critical of the Government. So it is a relief to be able to say something nice for a change.
I have just returned from chairing sessions for the 2011 National Digital Inclusion conference. I chaired the whole conference for the last two years but this time the organisers had the impetus of Martha Lane Fox’s Race Online 2012 campaign and lots of corporate partners so they were able to go upmarket and book Jon Snow. It was only when the great man pulled out at the last minute that they had to revert to yours truly (to be honest I’m happy nowadays even to be a substitute).
Anyway, Martha had done really well with her campaign. She was able to reveal yesterday that she has more than met her target of identifying more than 100,000 volunteers to help get the missing nine million on-line by next year. Just as importantly she has achieved something I always failed to do when a Government insider: get a joined up and ambitious approach to technology across Whitehall.
She told the conference she had spoken to a cabinet committee comprising 16 ministers and got them all to sign up to the idea of ‘digital by default’. The idea is simply that digital only should be the basis for new services with the parallel use of paper based systems having to be justified, rather than the old way of assuming paper and adding digital later. Of course, as Martha recognised, there are issues of access and inclusion but digital by default is a powerful way of increasing on-line take up and making real cost savings (something we all support).
Then following Martha was DCMS Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, (thanks a lot by the way to the tweeter who sent me a message just before I introduced him saying ‘make sure you don’t make the same mistake as Jim Naughtie’). Jeremy’s big moment was when he announced a new Government target that 90% of the country should have access to super-fast broadband by 2015, which is apparently a more ambitious target than any other major European country.
It is a common, and I think often fair, criticism of the Coalition that while it is very determined about cutting the deficit it doesn’t have anything like such a clear and credible story about supporting growth (or at least not one that goes beyond a standard free market assertion that a smaller state creates more space for the private sector). It remains to be seen how credible Jeremy hunt’s commitment is and it is, of course, one thing for 90% of the country to be able to access super-fast broadband, it is quite another for nine in ten people to actually have that access themselves.
But if we do hit the target it will make a genuine contribution to making possible major advances in public service delivery and engagement and a step change in productivity. It would certainly be good news story for the voters just before a General Election.
Oh the frustration. As a result of a complaint to the Charity Commission, I willingly agreed with RSA Trustees that I should not use this blog on this site to speculate on political strategy. Apparently, it’s not so much a problem of political bias, more that such matters have little to do with the RSA mission (‘unlike women’s sense of humour of the use of animals in advertisements?’ I hear you comment quizzically).
But I have so much to say! Sadly, I must save it for those occasional media appearances in which I insist there is no reference to the day job.
Suffice to say in this context that – amazingly – the general election is shaping up to be one in which real policy questions may feature. Whether on universalism in the benefit system, promoting marriage, the speed of deficit reduction, the form and content of schooling, immigration, Britain’s relationship with Europe, there are real differences being clearly articulated and debated.
Last week even, at the State of the Arts Conference, there were substantive differences between Jeremy Hunt and Ben Bradshaw’s view both of what is happening now in the sector and what needs to happen next.
Following the agreement of the Party leaders to TV debates, we are hoping to hold equivalent events with a departmental focus here at John Adam Street. We will be inviting the culture spokespeople and the environment leads to agree to answer questions from an audience comprising a full Great Room and thousands watching and listening on-line. And we will, of course, be hoping to do the same for education.
Which brings me to the most exciting news of the day: Michael Gove has replied to my July questions. Maybe now he has published his education manifesto I have finally, albeit momentarily, moved to the top of his priority list (joking and bad puns aside, I am genuinely flattered and grateful). And what a fascinating reply it is. I am holding back for 24 hours in case we can get some take up from the traditional media but tomorrow or the day after I will share his thoughts in full along with some of my replies to his replies.
Given that we are running at nearly 60 comments on my last education post, I am sure Michael’s views will provoke a very lively debate.