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Red, blue and gold: how the parties compare

Mark Say Published 13 April 2010

Red, blue and gold: how the parties compare

IT policies have been added to the parties' armouries for the general election battle, writes Mark Say

This is the first time that policies for public sector IT are playing any notable role in a general election. While they are not among the biggest guns on any side, they have been honed to the point of becoming useful weapons in the skirmishes that can change perceptions and swing a few votes. As with most issues, the rhetoric is often more pronounced than the detail, but there are significant differences between the positions of the main parties.

Most of the tub thumping has taken place around the issue of data sharing and the government's predilection for schemes that use centralised databases. Much of it derives from the decade old desire to join up services, reinforced by the Transformational Government strategy of 2005, and there has been no noticeable dissent within the Labour Party.

Both main opposition parties have portrayed this as a threat to privacy and the root of over-ambitious, badly designed IT projects that have wasted billions of taxpayers' money. The Liberal Democrats effectively staked their position in February 2009 with the publication of a Freedom Bill, proposing restrictions on the use of people's personal data by government.

Surveillance state

The Conservatives took a similar stance in their Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State paper, published in September, which said they would reduce the number of big databases, cut back the use of personal details, demand more checks on data sharing and "wherever possible" let people control their own data. Both parties have also committed themselves to the abolition of the National Identity Scheme and the ContactPoint children's database, the two big targets of the privacy lobby, and claimed they would impose a tighter regime on the use of the National DNA Database.

These policies convey a rejection of the assumption that making personal data more accessible to public servants is justified in the cause of improving services, and has been accompanied by claims that the government has gone too far in collecting data in the name of national security or fighting crime.

Conservatives and LibDems have also been consistently hostile towards England's NHS National Programme for IT, although what this would entail if there is a change of government is unclear. The LibDems have said they would abolish Connecting for Health, the agency that has run the programme, but its role has already been sharply diminished, and although only a few hospital trusts have new patient administration systems, most of the other projects within the programme have been delivered.

The Department of Health has also begun to loosen the requirements for trusts to use its preferred systems, the delivery of which is years behind schedule, and the most contentious element is whether to go ahead with implementing the electronic Summary Care Record. This has also suffered severe delays and attracted the ire of both parties, but only the Liberal Democrats have committed themselves to abolition.

Business end

At the business end the differences become harder to define. The Labour Party position is best encompassed by the recently published Government ICT Strategy, which places a heavy emphasis on the potential for savings in common infrastructure, standards and capabilities. The government is placing a lot of faith in the G Cloud an internet environment for storage and applications the Government Applications Store, the Public Sector Network, data centre rationalisation and shared services.

Despite some sniping from the opposition, none of these have been subject to sustained criticism and there is little prospect of any of the work being dropped if there is a change of government.

The Conservatives have published their own Technology Manifesto, which conveys a preference for a more incremental approach to IT projects. It includes a presumption against IT contracts worth more than £100m, although it is notable that this is more cautious than earlier calls from within the party to commit to keeping contracts within that value.

It also proposes the creation of a "government skunkworks" to develop low cost applications, and stronger powers for the government chief information officer, although these are not spelt out. But in other areas it is closer to government policy than the rhetoric may suggest.

The promise to explore low cost and existing solutions before plumping for bespoke commissioning is not far away from the intent of the Government Applications Store, and the call for a "level playing field" for open source technology is hard to distinguish from the government policy announced last year.

The Liberal Democrats have had less to say on these issues, suggesting that if they enter a coalition with either of the larger parties they would not interfere with the policies.

How much a change of government would affect existing programmes remains to be seen. The opposition commitment to abolish the National Identity Scheme and ContactPoint is now too strong to discard, but many of the other proposals are either couched in qualifications or indicate a difference in nuance rather than substance.

There would be changes, but they are unlikely to be as radical as much of the language suggests. There is always a difference between politics and the business of government.

This article will appear in the May issue of GC magazine.

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