Expert verdict: Corbyn helps put digital on the map but manifesto lacks ambition

The digital democracy manifesto launched by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week has failed to gain the approval of those working in public sector technology.

Tech experts have said Corbyn’s eight-point digital manifesto falls short on a number of points – Photo credit: Flickr, Michael Pollack

The manifesto, published on Tuesday, aims to highlight the potential of technology to encourage more people to get involved in the democratic process and suggests eight ways of improving digital to benefit citizens.

However, the document, which is just four pages and runs to less than 1,200 words, has received a lacklustre response from commentators, who – despite praising his efforts to fly the flag for digital – have accused Corbyn of skimping on crucial details.

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“It’s a welcome recognition of the power of digital and the internet to change people’s lives for the better, but the manifesto lacks ambition, a sense of urgency and a recognition of the vested interests and barriers to overcome,” said Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, which represents IT managers in the public sector.

David Jones, a Cardiff-based public services consultant who has advised the Welsh government on digital transformation, agrees.

“In terms of content, it’s hard not to accuse Corbyn of missing out a number of critical issues, including public service reform, the increasing threat of cyber-security and the politically charged question of encryption,” he said.

“On the plus side, it’s good that a Labour leader has made a major speech on the increasingly important issue of digital,” Jones added. “Policy development and lobbying in areas such as health and education are mature, but digital is still finding its feet.”

“Decidedly retro”

The manifesto is written from a political – rather than technology-focused – starting point, and recommends a number of state interventions, such as fostering the creation of cooperative digital platforms for selling services.

However, Theo Blackwell, Camden Council’s cabinet member for technology and growth, said that it wasn’t clear “what problem [Corbyn] was trying to solve”.

“Implied in the manifesto is the idea that there should be a different model of producing technology and digital products than the private sector,” said Blackwell. “There was an implied criticism of big tech, but I’m not sure what he was saying the problem was.”

Meanwhile, the industry body TechUK described a number of the proposals in the manifesto as “decidedly retro, putting an expanded state at the heart of every problem”.

For instance, the group questioned whether the state needed to be involved in the creation of platform cooperatives, as well as Corbyn’s proposal to push for open-source software.

“[This] may sound like a triumph for the little guy, but talk to any small UK tech firm and they will tell you that taking away their ability to monetise their intellectual property does nothing to help them grow,” TechUK said.

More of the same?

A further criticism of the manifesto is that some of the ideas are similar to existing policies – for instance the government’s digital standard already requires government source code to be made open.

In addition, commentators have questioned whether the state needs to create Corbyn’s proposed “open knowledge library”, which the manifesto says will be a “free-to-use online hub of learning resources” for his National Education Service.

Ferguson noted that the academic and publishing sectors have similar databases, while others have suggested that Wikipedia and Google already provide extensive online resource hubs.

However, the most obvious similarity is between Corbyn’s proposed Digital Citizen Passport and the Government Digital Service’s GOV.UK Verify system, which aims to simplify the identity assurance process for people accessing government services.

“It sounds like yet another ID project starting from scratch, when it needs to build on existing capabilities,” said Ferguson, adding that there are also questions about how people will be able to correct or update their data and how the scheme would be funded.

Corbyn’s proposed universal service network, meanwhile, has split opinion. Some have welcomed the stronger commitment to high-speed broadband of 1Gbps across the whole of the UK, while others questioned the feasibility of the plan, which the Labour team said would cost £25bn.

The chairman of the Internet Services Providers’ Association, James Blessing, said that policymakers should focus on “reforming regulations and barriers to rollout to make it easier for companies to deliver broadband”.

Digitising democracy

A major part of Corbyn’s manifesto focuses on providing the public with a place to get involved in democratic processes.

He proposes the creation of “massive multi-person online deliberation”, which will “make popular participation in the democratic process easy and inclusive” by encouraging online and offline political debate.

However, it isn’t clear how this would work in practice and Ferguson notes that the proposal “fails to recognise the gulf in trust between people and the state”.

Whereas for Blackwell the concern is that it will create a “cacophony of voices” rather than generating meaningful solutions to policy problems.

“This proposal sounds good, but it will be a forum for what people want, rather than what they need,” Blackwell said. “The criticism of creating a totally open discussion is that you get the mentality of the crowd without the wisdom.”


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