Patrice Riemens on Sat, 4 Nov 2006 23:06:17 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Chris Patten: Politicians have no grasp of technology

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Chris Patten: Politicians have no grasp of technology
By Tom Espiner, ZDNet UK

Former Hong Kong governor politician Chris Patten has said that a 
fundamental lack of understanding in government is to blame for a rash of 
ill-thought out technology projects and related legislation in recent 

Lord Patten of Barnes was especially critical of the government's ID card 
scheme, which is heavily reliant on technology. Speaking at the RSA 
Conference Europe on Wednesday, Patten said the scheme would not achieve 
one of its possible objectives of making borders more secure.

"I don't think ID cards make citizens more secure, or frontiers more 
secure. People would still have been blown up on the Tube last July if 
they'd had ID cards," he said.

He also criticized the support given to ID cards in 2003 by the then Home 
Secretary David Blunkett, calling the scheme a "populist Pavlovian 
Blunkett twitch". Blunkett resigned from the cabinet in 2005 over his 
involvement in political scandals.

Patten, a former EU Commissioner, was speaking at the three-day conference 
in Nice, France, on European business and technology.

Many politicians do not understand the technology issues that could affect 
government IT schemes, he said.

"Politicians have no sound grasp of technology issues--but politicians 
don't necessarily have a profound grasp of any issue. They rely on 
advisors for information on how to implement their broad intentions," 
Patten told ZDNet UK after the press conference. "You have to hope they're 
well advised."

Cisco's head of government affairs, Richard Allan, himself a former 
Liberal Democrat MP, agreed that politicians do not understand the 
technology they deal with.

"Most politicians don't understand technology, which is an increasing 
problem when increasing amounts of public money are being spent [on 
technology schemes]," he said. "A basic understanding of information 
systems would be helpful."

Allan said that just as politicians are expected to understand basic 
balance sheets when making a decision to spend public money, but not the 
intricacies of accountancy, so politicians should try to grasp the basics 
of information systems.

Technical advisors should also avoid jargon, he added. "The challenge is 
to develop a language politicians can understand, as well as politicians 
taking the time and trouble to understand it. What often happens is you 
get somebody speaking technical jargon to someone who doesn't understand 
the basics," said Allan.

Privacy campaigner Simon Davies, chairman of No2ID, agreed politicians are 
not in touch with the issues underlying the technology issues they 
legislate on, and criticised the conditions in government that have 
allowed the situation to come into effect.

"Prime ministers and home secretaries are notorious for grandstanding on 
technology issues, while at the same time having difficulty setting their 
video recorders at home," said Davies.

"The NHS programme for IT and the ID cards scheme both stand as a 
testament to the government's complete failure at forward planning [in 
technology schemes], and its inability to understand technology in the 
real world," Davies added.

According to Davies, the entire ID cards scheme was "dreamed up in a 

"[In 2003] the sole driver of the ID card scheme was Blunkett's obsession, 
but Blunkett himself didn't understand the technology," said Davies.

A spokeswoman for David Blunkett declined to comment on the extent of his 
understanding of the technology necessary to implement the scheme, but 
said: "The government is pressing ahead with ID cards despite Mr Blunkett 
not being in government. He's very supportive of the scheme."

However, academics from the London School of Economics (LSE) criticised 
that ongoing governmental support.

"Tony Blair's ongoing belief in ID cards shows he has no sense of that 
technology whatsoever," said Dr Edgar Whitley of the information systems 
group at LSE. "The Home Office is the same. They haven't told anyone about 
when the technology will come or how it will work, and they haven't fully 
tested it."

Professor Ian Angell of the LSE said: "The complexity of the ID cards 
scheme means it's going to fall apart. Basically [the government has] gone 
beyond the limits of the technology. But you can't blame the 
politicians--they're just reflecting the zeitgeist."

Simon Davies also said that reliance on advisors could lead to conflicts 
of interest, if those advisors represented large technology companies who 
stood to gain on the implementation of IT schemes.

"Conflict of interest is a sleeping giant in technology," said Davies. 
"The risk of advisors capitalising on the ignorance of politicians becomes 

Davies said that government should pay more attention to select 
committees, such as the Science and Technology Committee and the Home 
Affairs Committee, before formulating legislation.

Google chief executive Eric Schmidt has also added to the criticism around 
poiliticians' lack of IT knowledge.

"The average person in government is not of the age of people who are 
using all this stuff," Schmidt said at a public symposium hosted by the 
National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board earlier 
this month. "There is a generational gap, and it's very, very real."


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