It?s easy to be cynical about politicians, especially at election time. They can seem crudely opportunistic as they seek to cloak themselves in the garb of high technology. In the run-up to 1 May we can expect to see candidates posed in front of photogenic computers and hear earnest talk about the Information Superhighway.
But this time there may be fewer technical gaffes. Politicians and officials are no longer as hopelessly out of touch as they were at the last General Election. Indeed, political parties and Government departments have become heavy IT users. It is not just a matter of political Web sites or #35m DTI Information Society initiatives.
Last year the total public sector IT spend was more than #5bn, according to research company Kable. Both Labour and the Conservatives have spent millions on database ?rebuttal? systems for their party headquarters (see Business Computer World, February ), and are making effective use of them in the election campaign.
So enthusiastic are the parties about this technology that Speaker Betty Boothroyd recently felt it necessary to rule against its use on the floor of the House. Labour?s Brian Wilson had asked her to rule on an apparent failure by Tory MP John Greenway to declare a financial interest when asking a question about insurance. The Speaker was concerned by the fact that a researcher outside the chamber, apparently watching on TV, had transmitted the information to Wilson?s pager.
Though it?s tempting to think of Parliament as technologically backward, this is not entirely accurate. Hansard may insist on the quaint English spelling of computer ?programme?, but the full text of debates in the Lords and Commons is now online.
In the campaign so far there?s been near complete agreement about the direction of IT policy. IT Minister Ian Taylor and his Labour shadow Geoff Hoon shared a platform to outline the IT policies of their rival parties. Both were strongly in favour of the Government Direct initiative, a proposal to make government more accessible through IT.
This is already bearing fruit at www.open. gov.uk, where you can help yourself to official forms and Government documents. Studies into extending this self-service concept are underway ? allowing people, for example, to check up on their benefit entitlement. But both parties are aware of the security and privacy issues that would first have to be resolved.
All the main parties are in favour of greater use of IT in education and training. Also, they are strongly against a bit-tax on Internet use, of the type proposed by Professor Luc Soete of the University of Maastricht (see Business Computer World, March).
There is, however, some disagreement over BT. It is not allowed by regulator Oftel to deliver entertainment services into the home. Both Labour and the Conservatives have said they will review this, but on different timescales. Whichever party wins the election, the next Parliament will almost certainly have to legislate again on data protection.
One reason is an EC directive that comes into force next year which seeks to impose new obligations on data users. Some lawyers are already saying that the directive will be unworkable, so Parliament may need to sort things out.
Where politicians aren?t being so effective is in thinking of the implications for IT of their non-IT policies. EMU is the outstanding example here. The CSSA (Computer Software and Services Association) has warned that it is highly unlikely companies will be able to adapt their systems in line with the current timetable. With IT now the basis of so many administrative processes in the public and private sectors, it seems unwise to overlook it when working out the timetable for any political change.
Political Web sites
Hansard and other Parliamentary papers online:
Liberal Democrats: www.libdems.org.uk
Single source for official forms from Government departments, plus Green Papers and discussion documents: www.open.gov.uk/ gdirect
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