Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 299)



Mr White

  280. Something that follows on from that point is one of the things I am interested in is what are the barriers to change. To me change is about human reactions not a technological one. One of the things that has concerned me about the whole of the debate so far is that it has been about the Internet rather than the speed of change. Is not the real debate about how you deal with innovations, which goes way beyond the Internet, about the speed of change rather than whatever the particular technology happens to be? Have you done any work on that side of it?
  (Dr Coleman) We have done some comparative work on different parliaments and the way that they have responded to change. Different parliaments have done better in different areas. Some are much better at handling e-mail and e-mail filtering. Some have particularly good web sites. There are some web sites which put the Westminster Parliamentary web site to shame. Some are using electronic voting inside the chambers. I do not think there is a model parliament or model government anywhere in the world as far as this is concerned. For example, in the United States of America there is not a single federal or state assembly that has ever run an on-line discussion collecting evidence from citizens whereas the United Kingdom Parliament now has. In terms of who does what first I think everybody is feeling around and the message that all of us would put to the Public Administration Committee is that that needs to be done in a rather more structured way. One needs to start looking at best practice from other countries and thinking about opportunities for learning from those. Certainly in each of the specific areas we could give you examples of best practice in relation to e-mail. As I said, the Canadian Parliament has done some important work and indeed the Irish Parliament has as well.

  281. If you go back to e-commerce you are talking about how we manage this and regulate it, and they are going very much in the opposite direction of light-touch self-regulation because they recognise that by the time they make a regulation they are out of date. How does that tie in going back to the point you made about how you interact with citizens?
  (Dr Coleman) Is it not the same response most corporations take when they know that they are involved in a ten-year strategy for change? They do not put all their eggs into one basket. They take small steps in a particular direction and then they change. In 1983 the Members' Services Committee of the House of Commons proposed that all MPs should be given computers which would be consistent with one another. It was not until 1994 that in fact the House of Commons decided to adopt a computer system and that was not centrally procured and it led to inconsistency. So in the end it is far better to take small steps and be careful about what you do. In 1983 the computers bought would no doubt have been inconsistent with the needs of today.

  282. One of the things that the European Union did particularly when Bangemann was around was to promote e-government and e-commerce. Have you looked at that and were there any lessons from what he tried to do, electronic cities and things like that?
  (Professor Bellamy) Yes tele-cities which I think connects to the question you were asking a while ago about digital cities, for example. There has been quite a lot of money poured into the tele-cities initiative. The problem with them is two-fold. One is in fact that most of the innovation went into things that had to do with the delivery of services and support of e-commerce rather than democratic initiatives. One of the lessons which has pervaded this whole thing is that the democratic element in this can easily get side-lined by other sorts of initiatives. The second is that there was some faith put in this idea that you could have civic nets or whatever sponsored by local authorities and voluntary associations and that I think has largely come a cropper mainly because the incentive for people to join in was that they got free Internet connection. Of course the growth of ISPs has really made that rather redundant. This is a point I made in my paper, which is that if you rely on government sponsored or voluntary sponsored networks to provide the kind of public space that Stephen was talking about then they are not likely to work. I think that when we are talking about the growth of the global superhighway, this turns out to be a cul-de-sac. The future is about commercially sponsored initiatives. It is about finding room on those kind of networks, which is why the problem you were raising earlier about the regulation of those is a central, crucially important issue.
  (Dr Margetts) Also the question of telephone costs. If you look at the countries where telephone costs are low you are talking about 40 per cent and rising Internet allocation. You do see examples where the usage is high. In Australia and the Australian job network, for example, a million people access that every day and you are beginning to see something that looks like it really is part of everybody's life which was the idea of the digital cities to some extent.

  283. What is the role of the media in this brave new world, the traditional media, the newspapers and television news and Internet?
  (Dr Coleman) They have been adapting very fast. The BBC now essentially has a third service which is BBC On-line. The Financial Times has been the leader in terms of the British press but certainly the main change in terms of British newspapers is going to be in the lead-up to the next election. Most of them are trying to create portal sites which will direct people to party web sites. They are trying to learn from the United States. I am not sure they will be able to replicate that in United Kingdom conditions but one of the things that I thought was very significant earlier in the year is that at the time of the Chancellor's statement two months ago more users reached the BBC on-line site to follow the Budget than watched it on television.

  284. How do you see the existing government departments changing? Do you still see a role for government departments as opposed to holistic government or do you see the silent mentality of departments reasserting itself and continuing to exist in some changed form?
  (Dr Margetts) I think you are a long way from seeing that in Britain, I have to say. I do not think government organisations will disappear but they will change their focus. I think it is possible to visualise a time where the government organisation will be the support for a web site and therefore you can imagine organisational shapes changing quite dramatically. There is tremendous opportunity to present joined-up government but people cannot do everything at once so the things that they want to do with government they will do with one web site and other things they want to do they will do with another web site. So I still envisage organisational groupings but I do think that you can see a situation where a government organisation, a department is a support mechanism for a web site.

  285. Do you see that having a role with the non-government departments like the economic regeneration partnerships and things like that or is that just going to be left by the wayside?
  (Dr Margetts) I think it is possible for any governmental or quasi governmental organisation. Obviously it depends what an organisation does. Some of them are more suited than others.

  286. The point I was trying to get at is the link. You are saying that the Government will be lagging behind and there are some private sector companies who are leaping ahead which tend to be the ones taking initiatives in local areas. How is the interaction of those two, one dragging, one pioneering, going to affect our public administration in the future in those quasi governmental type organisations?
  (Dr Margetts) If citizens and enterprises cannot communicate with them electronically and they can communicate with other organisations electronically then I think inevitably they will lag behind. The Department of Social Security does not have much competition, but if citizens cannot communicate with some social security agency and they can communicate with a loan shark then that may be what they do. I think it will matter more and more.
  (Professor Bellamy) There is going to be a major problem about public accountability, because what is becoming very clear is that the information silos in government are not going to be broken down easily. And therefore what an organisational unit in the back office of government is increasingly going to be co-terminous with is a big mainframe processing system, because it is going to be years and years and years before those big mainframe processing systems are disposed of. The strategy behind the 25 per cent initiative and then the 100 per cent by 2008 is that you put a joined-up front-end to government, so that it looks joined up and it behaves as if it is joined up, but the back offices are going to be very very separate. From the point of view of public accountability, that seems to me to be hugely problematic because it is masking the underlying responsibilities for delivering the services. If you have private sector organisations who are running a lot of those systems and then you have government departments in partnership, not only with the private sector but with other sorts of quasi governmental organisations as well, you have got behind this apparently joined-up edifice a governmental system which is still very very complex. And it is going to be very difficult to get to the bottom of who was responsible when things go wrong.

  287. What makes you think that the private sector has not done exactly the same thing and that it is only a front to the world that they have changed and the old fashioned mainframe computers are the same for the private sector? Is that not the reality rather than there being this brave new world where the private sector is wonderful and the Government is bad?
  (Dr Margetts) That is the reality, yes.

  288. So what is the difference between private sector and public sector in that respect?
  (Dr Margetts) It is not all the private sector by any means, but some private sector organisations and a few governmental organisations have recognised the importance of this development and to some extent they have refocused themselves around the Web as their means to communicate with their customers and to work out what their customers want. Although they will carry on with many of the organisational barriers to change that they had before in the existing government, they have recognised the importance of this development and they have refocused their business towards using it because they have had to and I think that is the difference. It is a question of changing focus. This brave new world does not drive away all the antiquated computer systems that have been patched up to overcome Millennium Bug problems and are hopping along, it has not changed that and it will be a while before it changes that. There has to be a linkage there. You can present information on the Web, but in order to do transactions on the Web and to use information from internal information systems something quite radical has to happen and if it turns out that you do not have control over your existing information systems, as many public and private sector organisations do not necessarily have—and that comes back to the point about confusion of ownership and Public Private Partnerships where the control really is in the hands of the private sector—and the Government is moved towards doing that to a much more radical extent in the private sector, so the kind of Public Private Partnerships that exist in government information technology systems are bigger and more unwieldy and much harder to control than the kind of contracting that the private sector tend to do, you are likely to see more problems of ownership in the public sector than in the private sector.

  289. You seem to be arguing that there is a homogenous solution to this, that all government is one. Is not the reality that where you have diversity is where you tend to get innovation and that were you to get a situation where it was all one it would actually stifle innovation?
  (Dr Margetts) What am I suggesting should be all one?

  290. If the Government achieved the objective you said and got all of its systems up-to-date and all the rest of it, would not that stifle innovation because does not innovation come from the problems that people get round in their diversity?
  (Dr Margetts) You mean innovation in the US internal revenue service comes from having systems that were built in the 1960s. I am not suggesting that that is something that has to be overcome because I do not believe it is overcomeable quickly, it happens incrementally and with much difficulty, but if it did, no, I do not think it would necessarily stifle innovation.


  291. Could I try a couple of questions on you as we edge towards the end. If I asked you to give me an example of the kinds of activity that was engaged in that materially affected the outcome of the political process in some way could you pluck them and give us them? If asked individually to do that what would you come up with?
  (Dr Margetts) I think one example is the one Christine mentioned, which is the World Trade talks in Seattle, which could not start because of a mass demonstration organised on the Internet. That is an example of political participation on the Internet. If you look at political party membership, it is falling through the floor. People are not interested in belonging to political parties. I do not think we can see a time when it is suddenly going to rise up, but if political participation took place on the Internet I think that overcomes the problems associated with it. "Socialism cuts awfully into the evenings", as Oscar Wilde said.

  292. Surely it still cuts into the evenings?
  (Dr Margetts) Not if you can do it in the odd hour sitting at home at your PC at any time you like. That is not the same as going to a meeting.

  293. The fact that you describe it in this way is very revealing because if this does not count as real activity why are we to accept the product as having some validity?
  (Dr Margetts) I think it does indicate real activity.

  294. In that case it is real time, real evenings, is it not?
  (Dr Margetts) I think it is less painful in the same way as possibly phoning up your bank at 11 o'clock because you have forgotten to pay some sort of bill is less painful than going to the bank the next day.

  295. If you describe it in that casual incidental way that gives a picture of people in a sense having nothing better to do but press buttons, not because they have anything particular to contribute but because it is dead easy to do it.
  (Dr Margetts) Maybe I should not have quoted Oscar Wilde who might take that approach. I do not think it does necessarily devalue it. I do not see why that is not a valid form of political participation carried out by people who care about the political process but who have lost interest in traditional, very inefficient methods of political participation.

Mr White

  296. Is not the subtext of what you are saying that the old fashioned scenario where 60 people turned out to talk about traffic calming is undervalued by statements that it has got to be by the new technologies that we do this?
  (Dr Margetts) I do not see why that should not take place. I do not think there is so much public participation going on that we should say people have to do it one way or the other. I do not see why you cannot have a plurality of ways. This might appeal to some people and other ways they may find difficult.
  (Professor Bellamy) What would be really nice of course is to put some kind of note of your meeting up and then let other people join in. Again to answer your question that started this, if you were to go and talk to some of the people in Digital City and City Talks in Amsterdam they would talk to you about that kind of model where it is a supplement to rather than a replacement for meeting.


  297. The disruption of the World Trade talks stands as the best example we can find?
  (Dr Margetts) No.

Mr Browne

  298. In a sense though the disruption of the World Trade talks is the answer to Brian's point which is that communication in this form encouraged enough people to actually turn out to the public demonstration so there was a synergy between the two. They complemented each other.
  (Dr Margetts) Absolutely. In the same way that Amazon Bookstore is good news for courier companies.

  299. That is another point of course. As you know, there is an issue about delivery of e-commerce as there is about delivery of political policy. I think a lot of people round about Christmas time discovered the delivery infrastructure was not as good as the ordering infrastructure. Are there examples of good interactive web sites? Are there good examples of ordinary, not highly dramatic, policy issues or political events where this form of communication has improved the democratic process and improved the quality of decision making? Are there any out there that we can use?
  (Dr Coleman) I think there are some. I think the difficulty is that we cannot present them to you here visually because of the very problem that we are looking at. I think the Minnesota e-politics e-mail discussion has been tremendously important. I think the portals in the United States have helped to get the election debate on a much more informed basis. I think that some of the candidate web sites in the United States have been successful. Some of the ways in Australia that the Internet was used during the referendum campaign helped bring a bit more intelligence into what was otherwise a not very intelligent debate. I certainly think participation for groups which have traditionally been excluded has been increased. I think of the Native Titles debate in Australia which was transformed as a result of people being able to submit petitions through the Internet. I think of the coup in Pakistan. I was able by looking at the Pakistani news groups that existed in New York and in Britain to find out what I subsequently discovered was a much more valid picture of the coup in Pakistan as something that seemed to be supported by a large number of Pakistani people against a corrupt regime whereas the BBC did not tell me that for about 48 hours. The change of government in Indonesia was to a very great extent a result of some of the pressures that came through people organising on the Internet. It has not happened in this country to a great extent. The experiments are in a fairly embryonic stage and one has to actually go out and set them up. Local authorities have tried to use on-line consultation methods but neither in terms of national government nor Parliament has there been anything that has been a coherent strategy.
  (Professor Bellamy) There are examples that go earlier of course, particularly in the United States with cable TV, which were attempts to do similar things with an earlier form of the technology. The Oregon Governor in the late 1980s took advice on the shape of the Oregon budget, which is always quoted as something that worked very well. In Santa Monica there was a campaign about the provision of facilities for homeless people in the city which was organised through the Public Electronic Network there, where a group campaigned and brought about a very concrete change in the public policy of that city. Going back to Holland, I think there were some changes made in the decisions about the new runway at Schipol airport as a result of some of the discussions that went on in the Digital City. There are examples round the world. The problem with them is the one Stephen indicated, which is on the whole, with the exception of the Digital City, they were experiments. They were innovations that were set up with the precise aim of showing that this kind thing can be made to work. They are not things that were institutionalised into the fabric of democracy. So you have to take them with due care, but they do seem to indicate that we can have the kind of outcomes that you were talking about.

  Mr Browne: It occurred to me when Dr Coleman was answering that question that perhaps you might have been better equipped to answer it if at the same time you had access to the Web and you were able to show us things. It does seem to me that the illustration of what you are telling us is all there for us and we would better understand it if at thesame time as explaining to us you were able to show us.

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