It’s obvious the impact of technology on our society is growing rapidly. Since the iPhone launched a mere nine years ago we’ve seen the dawn of driverless cars, quantum computing, drones and rising hype about artificial intelligence, to name but a few trends.
Almost every policy the government implements will be affected, directly or indirectly, by tech. IT is a crucial part of Universal Credit, criminal justice reform, HS2, NHS savings, tax changes – and these are just some of the most notable examples.
But walk into the Palace of Westminster, and you seem to enter a time warp. Despite some changes within Parliament – setting up Office 365 or handing out iPads to MPs, for example – many of the procedures, process and ubiquitous paper make it feel centuries-old.
Our laws are still written down on vellum, made out of goatskin (seriously). MPs have to write down their names on paper cards to reserve seats in the Commons chamber.
Hansard – a report of Parliament’s proceedings – is still printed in full, every day, at a cost of £4 million to taxpayers, plus numerous other documents. In total Parliament prints 18 million pages of paper every single year, according to its internal digital service.
‘Overwhelming majority’ doesn’t get it
In these surroundings, perhaps it should come as no surprise that so many MPs seem to be ignorant about technology.
In 2014 Boris Johnson said he didn’t have any ‘cool apps’ on his smartphone and didn’t know how to download them – a joke in all likelihood, but probably true for many of his peers.
Half of MPs have never heard of the government-funded Tech City UK, set up in 2010 to champion the UK technology sector, a survey found, in one small example of the issue.
“The overwhelming majority don’t really understand how tech works and hence what is reasonable and sensible to propose,” Julian Huppert, former Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, tells Techworld.
Most worrying is the number who are ‘unconsciously incompetent’, who are unaware they have no knowledge on tech, says Esko Reinikainen, cofounder of skills and culture consultancy Satori Lab.
“In general the politicians I have encountered have generally low levels of technical competence,” he adds.
There are some notable exceptions: Tom Watson, Chi Onwurah, David Davis, Grant Shapps, Robert Halfon and Stella Creasy are among the more ‘switched on’ MPs.
But as a general rule members of Parliament and, most worryingly, ministers are – to varying degrees – not as clued up as we might hope.
How else can we explain the series of tech-related policies – ranging from unenforceable to downright bonkers – that this government and its coalition forerunner came up with?
Cameron’s encryption comments
The government’s stance on encryption is one of the most notable examples.
Earlier this year prime minister David Cameron said: “Are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that [intercept it]? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.” The statement was met with derision and fury from many in the tech sector.
“That may seem reasonable but anyone who thinks about it seriously would realise it’s an impossible task: it’s technologically unfeasible and would have massively deleterious consequences on security, for example the banking system,” Huppert says.
Open Rights Group’s executive director Jim Killock described the plans as “dangerous, ill-thought out and scary” and said undermining encryption would “have consequences for everyone’s personal security”.
The introduction of network-level internet filtering in 2013 was another controversial policy.
Individuals now have to actively choose to opt out of these filtering tools to gain access to blocked content from their internet service provider. The filters prevent access to pornography but also, due to their blunt nature, block advice about drugs, sexual abuse charities’ websites and feminist blogs.
A more recent policy that raises hackles in the tech community is a proposal to introduce age ratings for music videos on YouTube and Vevo. As my colleague Sam Shead put it: “My 11-year-old cousin could get around that in seconds”.
And these are just tech-specific policies, of course.
Tech impact assessments
If you look at the unfolding IT problems surrounding Universal Credit and Care.data and potential issues with online tax returns and digitising the criminal justice process, you can see how important a topic it is.
And that’s before you think about the need to champion the UK’s growing, high-potential tech sector.
Quite quickly, the lack of tech-savvy people at the top, or at least advising ministers, seems all the more worrying.
“It’s a problem, because tech is pervasive, rapidly changing, high impact and expensive when done wrong,” says Chris Puttick, cofounder of internet security startup TwoTen.
Huppert partly blames these ill-considered policies on the fact politicians increasingly come from professional political, media or PR backgrounds.
“These are roles where it’s more useful to say optimistically what might happen, than engage with messy details,” he says.
However might we – the public – also be partly responsible?
“There is probably more electoral reward from giving a simple statement like ‘we will stop encryption and catch terrorists’ than pointing out why it doesn’t work. As long as the system gives more reward for simplistic lines that don’t recognise reality, we will have politicians who respond,” Huppert says.
Aline Haynes, IT director at Sheffield City Council, says the tech community itself is also partly to blame.
“Is it our fault for not making what we do more engaging/making relevance clearer. Not tech for tech's sake,” she tweeted to Techworld.
One way to mitigate this problem would be to introduce a ‘technology impact assessment’ to government policies, suggests Huppert.
“Time and time again I have seen the implementation of policy affects by tech issues. It wouldn’t take long to properly consider at the start – how realistically will we do this, what will be the impact on other issues, and systems, and so on.
“We can’t expect all MPs, ministers and civil servants to be experts. But they need to be much better at listening to those that are,” he says.