Technology’s “Doctor Strangelove”

Why do so many governments have a blind spot about technology policy? When it comes to really important decisions, policy makers are prepared to hand over all authority to technicians.

Imagine for a moment that the discussion was about any other sector of public policy than technology. For example, about procurement of services for building new hospitals or schools.

Imagine Builder Bill comes along and offers to build what you need for “honest to goodness, down to Earth prices”, using raw materials he’d dug up himself; cheap home-made tools, a “good eye” for getting it right but no experience actually building anything to spec, following a building code or standard processes. Would you take him on? If you did, you could expect to be a front page story in the national press and with good reason.

Yet, when a group of technology suppliers does the same, utters a few magic words such as “open source” or “free software” and proposes as its main value proposition that they are not providing well-known brands and solutions, they are welcomed with open arms and without the slightest whiff of something being very, very, wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: Seen from the point of view of small businesses (and I set up, ran and crashed a small IT startup and have the bruises to show), it is possible to understand their desire to see government procurement being more favourable to their wares. Technology being such an intangible, it is possible to convince some people that your garage-based business really can do the same, if not better, than some multinationals – and some have.

Equally, some such projects are run according to the highest professional standards of project and program management.

But to game the market to favour one technology stack to the exclusion of any other is a folly: only last month, I participated in a small London event with the UK Cabinet Minister, Francis Maude, where he stressed that his government was committed to public procurement that told the market what the government wanted but left suppliers to determine how. I couldn’t agree more and the commitment, further, by his office to promote the use of open standards, helps the market supply goods and services with some confidence that they can plug in and interoperate with other suppliers.

We build and equip schools, hospitals, roads, railways and defence systems using the best that the market has to offer and consider any “patented design” to be a badge of honour and quality, demonstrating innovation and leadership, rather than as an albatross dragging down an otherwise healthy administration.

The Right Honourable gentleman would be right to promote the same mentality when it comes to technology-related services. Unfortunately, this is not happening in practice. The issue of open standards – important as a principle of interoperability – has been confused and munged together (deliberately, it seems) with open source. Like saying, “build the school according to the building code but don’t use any industrial quality materials or materials for which anyone has any patents or other intellectual property claims…”

Only no-one will actually put it like that. Open source advocates are convinced, religiously and dogmatically, that their solutions are preferable. Like many religions, they have some good points to make and be proud of even if fundamentally flawed and based on faith rather than reason. And public procurement should be based on rational thinking and decision-making rather than faith. Ironically, the messianism coming out of the Cabinet Office is more the sort of stuff I would have expected from (but would have equally argued against) a left-leaning Labour administration than a free-marketeer like Francis Maude.

The problem, it would seem, is that blind spot: talk about technology policy – pass it on to the tech people, like his chief Praetorian Guard and deputy CIO, Liam Maxwell. Nice man, like the Archbishop of Canterbury probably is. It doesn’t make his faith and dogma any more palatable or right; or make either qualified to make important decisions beyond their respective remit. Yet there he stands, “protecting” his Minister from the complaints and concerns raised by many Ministries and agencies about his policies (actually, his deputy CIO’s policies, given that the Minister seems to have delegated policy making too in this field).

Talk to the press? Same problem: it’s a technology issue so pass it on to the tech editor. Except that it isn’t: it goes to the heart of government policy making; the correct but limited role of government advisers; the role of Ministers to make judgment calls based on policy considerations not mantra or dogma; the influence of IT lobbyists in key committees that ought to be privileged spaces of policy development. In any other policy area, it would provoke an outcry. Mention “technology”, the editors’ eyes glaze over and the story is passed along to the tech editors, more than a fair share of whom actually hold the same faith-based approach to computing, almost as a rite of passage.

It is something of a truism in management that “generalists know when they are out of their depth and when to hand on a problem to a specialist but the specialist never does”. “IT specialists” are that: they know their technologies, maybe have some understanding of their usefulness and impact but they are not policy makers or strategists – indeed they should be kept well away from these issues. Like Dr. Strangelove, they become obsessed with their technology and their creation and nothing will convince them they are wrong.

It is time for political leaders to take back the policy initiative and restore authority and responsibility where it rightly belongs – with policy makers, not advisors.

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