Rebooting Britain

Jul 7, 2009 08:00 · 800 words · 4 minute read government politics reboot

[Cross-posted from the Headshift blog]


The great and the good of social media (as well as the rest of us) descended on the Institute of Electrical Engineers in London yesterday for Reboot Britain, a 1-day conference run by NESTA looking at “how the promise of our new digital age can tackle the challenges we face as a country”

There have been a number of conferences and gatherings happened over the last few months that have had this theme, but this was the largest and most “official” so far. The participants were mixed - the usual social media suspects, non-profits, public sector and the hackers and the enthusiasts.   Speakers ranged from from the official spokespeople such as Martha Lane-Fox the Digital Inclusion “czar”, Shadow Cabinet members through to the doers such as School of Everything’s Paul Miller and the celebrity experts in the form of Howard Rheingold.

If there was a theme, it was that something’s gone fundamentally wrong with the way we operate many aspects of our society, and digital technology gives us an opportunity to fix some of these.   The opportunity was partially summed-up by Jonathan Kestenbaum of NESTA when he talked about there being no shortage of ingenuity in the UK, but that it’s now about moving this “from the marginal to the mainstream”.

The opening keynote was delivered by the Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.  He’s the very model of a modern Tory (shadow) minister, straight from Conservative central casting - no notes, no podium and no tie.   He’s got a good line in expenses-related self-deprecation, which is probably all that stands between most politicians and their heads on spikes over Westminster Bridge these days, and played to the audience with references to the IT Crowd sitcom and “rebooting PCs” jokes.

His opener was that the current cynicism with politics is linked to the reach of technology - as organisations such as MySociety shine a bright light into some fairly murky corners, the information that comes into view shows the political processes for the corrupt and dysfunctional mess that they are.   Politics is now stuck in the old model of “getting on with it for now and get reelected every 4 years”.

The soundbite phrase he used was “collaborative individualism”, and there was a grab-bag of use cases - Wikipedia’s virtually instantaneous response to the 77 London bombings as an example of wikinomics in action. The flip side to collaborative individualism is nanny-state paternalism - I’m not sure I entirely agree with that distinction - to me, conservatism can be just as paternalistic - but it is at least distinct from the tendency of the current government to firehose public money at grandiose and badly defined mega-projects while staring starry-eyed at US corporate consultancies.

He also made a point that hadn’t really occurred to me before - whereas in the US, the opportunities offered by digital media were embraced by the centre left (or at least as left as the Obama administration gets), whereas in the UK it’s been taken up by the centre right.  He explained this as being down to the instinctive Tory like of decentralisation, and the way that the web can be seen as a fairly pure expression of evolution in action - good ideas get traction and services succeed, while poor ones don’t get the traffic and wither and die.  Again, that strikes me as a simplification, particularly when you consider public services where the concept of “competition” simply doesn’t apply - but it does at least give us examples of what works and what doesn’t that can be used as the basis for more successful online public services.

And there were a few semi-concrete ideas thrown out, such as making details of all expenditure of more than £25,000 freely available online - although that does raise the question of how many transactions will come in at exactly £24,999.99 once that goes live, of course…

What was most interesting, given where we are in the electoral cycle, was the complete lack of any Government representation at the conference - unless you count Tom Watson MP who was there in his capacity as a backbencher (or perhaps as the “Member for the Internet”?)  I supposed you could argue that this is down to the Government being busy - well, Governing - but it did strike me that here was a missed opportunity for a practical demonstration of the “listening” that is supposed to be happening.  Perhaps if the conference had cost 4 figures and delegates got bags emblazoned with large US corporate logos as freebies, we’d have seen a few more Government representatives?

Video of the speakers and the subsequent conversations are being curated at the Reboot Britain site, and there’s also a conference wiki where (hopefully) more follow-up will take place.