Comment: A wrong message from the top

Tony Blair is a self-confessed technophobe, so imagine my surprise when I received an email from the Prime Minister in March.

My first suspicion was that this was some sort of spoofing scam, but I was sufficiently intrigued to read on. ‘For Mr Howard to take one case and use it to undermine the whole of the NHS is typical and wrong…’ I was convinced. This was Labour Party spam.

It turns out thousands of people received that email, and it speaks volumes for the lack of awareness of IT issues that a political party feels it can send unsolicited emails en masse and expect no backlash. The theory of spam is that sending emails is so cheap that the sender has nothing to lose: a tiny percentage of positive responses makes it all worthwhile. But this little trick created uproar, so it’s likely to have been a counterproductive exercise.

Despite this episode proving that the Labour Party’s marketing machine is as aware of the potential of technology – albeit misplaced in this instance – as any other organisation, don’t expect computing to be top of the political agenda at this election. Apart from a small band of technology-literate MPs, most members of the House of Commons aren’t sufficiently au fait with technology to give the issues PC Pro readers regard as important any serious consideration in the House of Commons.

Even computing professionals might feel there are more important things going on in Britain than computing, but it’s actually having an enormous impact on some of the key issues at this general election.

Improvements to the NHS, education and the criminal justice system are all underpinned by big investments in technology, according to the Gershon Review into public sector efficiency. Furthermore, the government’s latest hobby horse – ID cards – has obvious implications for tech investments.

And with over half of voters now using the Internet, the majority of people are likely to have been affected by spam, viruses and phishing.

But these have become so common that the electorate has come to view them as a fact of life. Therefore, apart from a few tales of woe every time a big outlay on upgrading public service computing goes astray, policies on computing are rarely in the limelight.

Part of the problem is that despite the fact that the Internet is regularly pinpointed as one of the most important breakthroughs in society in recent times, the majority of MPs haven’t boarded the Net revolution.

They don’t understand the technology, so they install quangos such as the e-government unit to do it for them. That’s all well and good, but it’s outsourcing the problem rather than ensuring the people that represent the electorate are in touch with one of the biggest changes in society over the past 20 years.

But, at risk of sounding like a politician myself, I think I’ve found the problem: the electorate. We’re to blame.

I’ve been asking politicians for years about when real efforts to deal with problems such as spam are going to be made. Although a few forward-looking MPs have been attempting to deal with the problem, most believe they have bigger fish to fry. The standard response is that an MP’s policies are directly linked to the content of his postbag. Why would he spend any time lobbying for computing reforms when the volume of post he receives refers to the pedestrianisation of town centres, for example?

According to a recent survey by Telewest Business, less than 1 per cent of people have emailed their MP, so you shouldn’t reasonably expect those sitting in the House to take the medium seriously.

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