Saturday, 12 April 2014

Digital government, empowerment and the Estonian fallacy

Don't be fooled into believing that "digital government"
will automatically deliver empowerment

Last Sunday night/Monday morning DMossEsq started a post. It's a good thing he fell asleep before finishing it and you never had to read it. It wasn't getting anywhere:

The lesson today is taken from the Book of Onwurah and our text is:
Labour’s history, our roots, are in the empowerment of people. All too often government is something done to the people. Digital government must not be like that.
That is as it is recorded in the Guardian version of the Estonian Bible of Digital Government. In the Civil Service World version, it is written:
We see digital government as a way to empower citizens and enable the public sector to do more with less; the Tories see it as just another way to slim down the state and deliver a public sector which does less with less.
The "more with less" tag will be recognised of course from an earlier lesson, Less for more:
... Not so fast, said, Ian Watmore, Chief Operating Officer of ERG [the Efficiency and Reform Group], whose motto, devised by Lord Brown of Madingley, Chairman of ERG and previously Chairman of BP and the Gulf of Mexico, is "more for less" ...

Then in Thursday's Times David Aaronovitch re-kindled interest in the unfinished post. He was writing about the letter sent to the Guardian by 19 "members of the progressive community" about Labour's manifesto for the May 2015 general election here in the UK:
If it were to sell this vision, Labour required an election manifesto based on a list of principles including “prevention of the causes of our social, environmental, physical and mental health problems, which requires a holistic and long-term approach to governance”, and the “empowerment of everybody . . . to enable them to play a full role as active citizens”.

This “empowerment of everybody” would need much devolution of power, said the letter, before ending in a peroration that included the assertion that “the era of building the capacity and platforms for people to ‘do things for themselves, together’ is now upon us” ...

When you write this badly, when you are so unclear that even experts in your field cannot decipher your intention, there is a reason for it. It could, of course, simply be that you are an idiot. But two other explanations are more likely: either that you don’t really know what you mean yourself; or that you do know, but you’d rather not spell it out.
It's not just the Labour tribe hoping to win by banging on about empowerment, as Mr Aaronovitch would have known if he had only read the DMossEsq post that was never published:

The Conservative tribe – the "Tories" as the prophet Onwurah calls them – also invoke empowerment. The October 2002 Book of Carswell, for example, is actually called Direct Democracy – empowering people to make their lives better.

And the Lib-Dem tribe, too. Repeatedly.

Here is the Lib-Dem prophet Davey:
Government, business and consumer groups commit to midata vision of consumer empowerment
... Today’s announcement marks the first time globally there has been such a Government-backed initiative to empower individuals ...
And Davey's successor, the Lib-Dem Lamb:
The Government launched the consumer empowerment strategy, Better Choices Better Deals: Consumers Powering Growth, in April 2011. The strategy set out ways for Government and others to help give consumers more power in a rapidly changing and complex economy.
And Lamb's successor, the Lib-Dem Swinson, with her midata Innovation Lab. And her successor in turn, the Lib-Dem Willott, who detects "progress on the consumer empowerment strategy".

It's up to these politicians to explain clearly what they mean by "empowerment". If they can. We must be able to answer the question what is this power that our politicians are so graciously granting back to us. Only then can we the public judge their offering.

The one germane point to add here is this. Don't be fooled into believing that "digital government" will automatically deliver empowerment.

That's what many of these politicians are advocating. And they're wrong. It's the Estonian fallacy.

Once we all maintain personal data stores with total strangers (the Government Digital Service's spooky so-called "identity providers") and once all government applications are scudding around out of control in the cloud, digital government could just as easily tighten the grip of Westminster and Whitehall – or Amazon, Google and Facebook – and perpetuate the tradition of government as "something done to the people", as Ms Onwurah aptly puts it.

No comments:

Post a Comment