How the manifestos stack up on digital and democratic reform
Whatever the result of the General Election, the next government will be led and largely driven by the agenda of one of the two big parties. So it’s pertinent to understand what that agenda is, both for digital and for democracy. First off though it’s difficult to say that these overlap very much in either party’s thinking. The emergent pattern for 2015 party manifestos (and not just in these areas) is tall on the rhetoric and short on actual policy detail. Labour’s in particular is rather light on facts. I also found it disconcerting that both manifestos are peppered with full page pictures of people smiling just a little bit too much, but that’s a different blog.
Only the Conservatives directly reference the Open Government Partnership, which might well be a considered a benchmark for open, digital government, in their manifesto and commit to broadly continue this work. Labour do discuss openness and transparency in some detail in their Digital Government Review. However, this is problematic because, despite the review claiming that it “sets out clear goals for a digital agenda,” there is little direct cross-over into their manifesto and it’s not referenced in the manifesto, so it would be unfair to include it in this comparison.
I’ve looked at four areas: broadband, digital inclusion, open government and democratic reform. I’ve done this in the hope that it helps us understand where the next five years might be heading in terms of democratic reform and open government. I chose the first two not to suggest that digital is all that matters but because these are both key enablers for transformation. I could equally have looked at education and innovation policy.
We can’t have digital democracy if we don’t have a digital infrastructure. Both the major parties have under-delivered massively in this area in the past and the last government blew their chance by pushing all the cash into BT’s pockets for bugger all in return. This time around “Labour will ensure that all parts of the country benefit from affordable, high speed broadband by the end of the Parliament.” That tells me nothing but leaves me rather concerned. The Conservatives have a lot more detail and a lot more commitments, to rural and urban superfast broadband by the end of 2017 and “near universal” coverage in rural areas by 2020 (no definition of ‘superfast’, by the way) and they also score a point for including broadband networks as infrastructure.
- Labour 1/5
- Conservatives 3/5
Now you’ve got broadband, can you use it? Do you have the skills and the tools? Too many of us still don’t have the internet at all and we have no real idea how many lack the skills that they really need to participate in a digital society and economy.
The Conservatives link digital inclusion to better broadband and make a commitment to free wi-fi in public libraries (ignoring the fact that their savage cuts to local government are causing libraries to close across the country and that this situation is unlikely to improve under a Conservative-led government). They also propose free access to e-books and compensation for the lost royalties that result. The Conservatives want to “save you time, hassle and money by moving more services online, while actively tackling digital exclusion.” They are proposing digital assistance for people who are not online and rolling out more GOV.UK-like services. That’s quite specific though it lacks some details on how these things will happen, when and on what scale. Labour on the other hand want to support “community-based campaigns” to reduce the number of people who can’t use the internet and to help people get the skills to make the most of digital technology. No idea what any of that means.
- Labour 1/5
- Conservatives 2/5
Cabinet Office Minister Frances Maude deserves a huge of amount of credit, and indeed he has earned the respect of a lot in the digital government sector, for taking the lead on the OGP process, not just in the UK but internationally. There is an enormous risk that the hard work done to date will be lost, not through political or ideological change but through a lack of passion and a renewed agenda. Regardless of who is in the next government this risk is very real. The risk is that open government slips off the radar and at best becomes a minor back-office function in Cabinet Office. I hope this is not the case because Maude has created the space for some of the most exciting opportunities for democratic reform that we’ve seen, from the creation of the Government Digital Service to the embryonic start of open policy. Both parties talk about transparency of public data but they fudge the issue of increasing outsourcing taking data out of the public domain and the challenges of FoI in this environment. Labour does describe FoI as a “crucial check on the power of the Executive” and proposes an extension so that outsourced public services run by “large private companies”.
Labour is thinking about reforming the bureaucracy and frame this as a cost-saving exercise but also as an opportunity to devolve powers and services to down to local government and the regions (the Conservatives are also, unsurprisingly, suddenly keen on local devolution too). They see the need to redesign public services and they see digital as a way to “create a more responsive, devolved, and less costly system of government”. So, digital is a reform tool. Is it also a transformative tool? It will, Labour say, create efficiencies, a more connected society and they “back the principle of ‘open data by default’, releasing public sector performance data wherever possible. So, in short, no, there’s no real transformative agenda here but it could emerge and, to be fair, this is not an area where the parties differ greatly. A lot of what Labour is saying is now in effect ‘business as usual’. But it lacks clear passion and commitment, which is a potential cause for concern and nowhere do Labour mention the OGP process (which is not unreasonable as it’s a little niche!).
The commitments on open government again highlight this repeating pattern of lack of detail, there’s a lot of words but they can be interpreted in a variety of ways without clear targets. Labour are by far the most vague in this sense, their commitment is hardly more than vague platitudes. The Conservatives at least drop in a few small but real targets (though it is also perhaps easier to this in the context of a continuing programme of government than it is coming in from opposition). One such commitment is to open up patient data and “give you full access to your own electronic health records” but recognising too that people want the right to opt-out of data sharing. There is also mention of a ‘Police Innovation Fund’ for digital innovations in law enforcement and reference to a continuation of the programme of streamlining services online through GOV.UK. And the one and only mention of OGP, where “Transparency has also been at the heart of our approach to government” and a commitment to “continue to be the most transparent government in the world” without any quantitative assessment of what that might actually mean.
- Labour 2/5
- Conservatives 3/5
Both parties make a commitment to the freedom of the media and acknowledge that this is an important component of a functioning democracy. However, the Conservatives will restrict our rights to freedom of expression, by maintaining the ‘Lobbying Act’ (which Labour will repeal), limiting Trade Union powers further and repealing the Human Rights Act. Not to even mention the impact of a potential exit from the EU under a Conservative-led government.
Labour “want our Parliament to look more like Britain” and to do this they will promote under-represented groups, introduce votes at 16 and reform the House of Lords. They will also create a Constitutional Convention to address the future of British democracy but, as I’ve said before, this feels a little too much like letting the turkeys take over the arrangement for Christmas.
Labour promises to transform the relationship between the citizen and the state, it just isn’t quite telling us what this means. Where it is more specific is in the devolution n of power to English cities and counties through an English Devolution Act, which will transfer £30 billion of funding and the necessary powers out of Whitehall. And at the same time as banning MPs from holding paid directorships and consultancies Labour promises to reform the legislative process and strengthen the public’s voice, so we “can better hold the government to account”. But they aren’t telling us how.
The Conservatives are rather weak on democratic reform. What they do have suggests a panicked pandering to the threat of UKIP and an attempt to shore up an exclusive system of privilege that decreasingly represents most of us but which keeps them in power. Combined with attacks on legitimate campaigning, it’s hard to say anything positive about this rather regressive set of proposals, though they clearly play to a key audience.
- Labour 4/5
- Conservatives 0/5
You can read a review of the minor party manifestos here…