When IT Meets Politics

Nov 30 2019   8:05PM GMT

Your election choice: Protectionist Stagflation or Radical (Technology enabled) Change

Philip Virgo Profile: Philip Virgo

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Brexit
Conservative
digital
green
Labour
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Without radical change, particularly to our education and training system to give our current and future workforce the skills of the future, that future is bleak, who-over wins on December 12th.

Thec Conservative spending plans are ambitious. They require much more than the Brexit Dividend from halting the remission of tens of £billions to Brussels and from forcing Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google etc. to pay VAT and Corporation Tax in London instead of Dublin or Luxembourg. The Libdem plans are equally ambitious, when you remember they have no Brexit dividend to spend, only a supposed Remain Dividend after the ending of uncertainty. But the unwinding of the stocks built up to handle fears of border chaos will guarantee a period of recession. Meanwhile Labour will “guarantee” a prolonged period of uncertainty, while they renegotiate Brexit. Then they have spending plans that are well above the yield from new taxes on the tech multi-nationals and increased taxes on business and on households earning more than double the national average. That is if there is any net yield after taking account of the Laffer Curve.

The world, not just the EU, faces economic uncertainty and recession, hence the core of the case for remaining inside a protectionist trade bloc, even though that bloc has collectively doomed itself to over-regulation and stagnation. Unless and until we have a period of serious, investment-led economic growth, whether inside or outside the EU, we face a period of stagflation. And the idea that we can base that growth on importing skills that are in shortage across the world is as big a fantasy as … [insert here the forecast you believe in least].

Read on … you will find my own recommendations at the end of this blog.

Debate is compartmentalised

Earlier this week I attended a local climate change hustings. Dulwich and West Norwood is a target seat for the Greens. The LibDems stood aside to give Jonathan Bartley a clean run against Helen Hayes . The Brexit candidate, Julia Stephenson was a passionate, practical and personally committed conservationist who wanted us to leave the EU so we could take climate change seriously, instead of blethering.

I was, however, struck that no-one raised the issues of technology and climate change. There was no mention of using technology to reduce carbon foot prints: e.g. broadband to telecommute to work or smart logistics/energy etc.  There was no mention of the effect of demand for the rare elements used in chip production on the African rain forests.

The Conservatives have committed to expedite  investment in full fibre and to use Brexit to escape the cruelties and waste of EU agriculture policy. But only Plaid Cymru have linked broadband and green technology. There is no mention of broadband and “smart” in Labour’s promises to spend more on windpower etc.  Debate is compartmentalised.

We are promised forests of magic money trees instead of plans to use technology to do more for less

Meanwhile all parties have promised to spend money that we have not yet earned.

In the case of the Conservatives it is the Brexit dividend. In the case of Labour it is a forest of magic money trees interspersed with black holes (e.g. compensation for WASPI women). The LibDems spending plans are more modest but depend on a Remain dividend greater than our current payments to the EU, let alone the increases to come.

It took time from Harold MacMillan’s sacking of Peter Thorneycroft (because he wanted to control Government spending) to the stagflation of the 1970s but the path was as the latter had predicted. The failure of the Coalition Government to impose austerity on Central (as opposed to Local) Government spending after the crash of 2008 has paved the way for a similar rerun of fantasy economics.

Mass immigration has so far held wages down, while increasing demand for housing, maternity, childcare and schools places well beyond previous planning forecasts. But if “austerity is over” and the intention is to control immigration, we can see the future . Brexit or not, we face a period of stagflation as Government spending roars further ahead of tax receipts.

Health and Welfare as an example of the need for radical change, not just more money.

All parties have promised increased spend and more doctors and nurses to address multiple crises – from maternity and childcare overwhelmed by immigrant communities to the multiple chronic conditions of an ageing population. At the same time we are told we must slash our carbon footprint to avoid catastrophic climate change.

To quote “No End of Jobs” (written in 1984 when there was a previous scare that AI and Robotics would lead to mass unemployment”) “If we do not make better use of technology to create more wealth and simultaneously release and equip manpower to take better care of the elderly, you and I will grow old and cold alone, in the dark.

Part of the way out is to focus “investment” on ubiquitous, secure, high reliability, resilient broadband to join up health and welfare in patients homes (including care homes) and in the local community (hence my work on a pilot community safety partnership) rather than pour funding down silo’d and separately regulated drainpipes, shuffling the elderly,infirm and/or vulnerable between departments, hospitals and nursing homes accordingly to which symptom/need is currently dominant/fashionable and beds are available.

Investment in technology needs to  focus on meeting clinical and care needs and supporting flexible development paths to develop and maintain the skills of clinicians and carers at all levels. We are more likely to see both good practice and value for money if the focus is  less on saving costs within departmental silos and more on enabling better, faster, holistic, joined-up, care for patients. Too much attention is paid to top down data collection (to aid planning and research) and too little to addressing cumbersome user interfaces which get in the way of spending time caring for patients. We need more attention on the inter-operability and linkage of bottom up systems which meet immediate clinical needs or help patients to manage their own long term conditions. That was why the NHSIA was making faster progress with smaller budgets that Tony Blair’s grandiose NPfIT. The standardised replacement systems all too often had less clinical functionality than those they replaced – and still have inter-operability problems.

The manpower planning and skills programmes for the NHS appear stuck in the 20th century.

The focus is on “excellence” and producing relatively small numbers of highly skilled graduate professionals. We need them to supervise the evolving “teams” but the volume need is for skilled carers, medical/nursing “associates” and paramedics capable of handling most common health problems/conditions/accident. They in turn need flexible apprenticeship and professional development programmes which enable them to learn while they earn and keep abreast of change,  without having to traipse round the country according to which hospital is accredited by which Royal College and/or University to offer which experience. We have long relied on immigration to fill the inevitable gaps.

We need to open up the missing vocational education and training paths from carer, through nursing, “clinical assistant” and technician to GP and Hospital Doctor. We need look at why nursing degrees have double the average student drop out rate and Nursing Degree Apprenticeship programmes have such poor take-up. The latter is said to more degree than apprenticeship with the same problems of having to live away from home studying theory, while those attracted to nursing are more often motivated to care for their fellow human beings and many have local commitments. The “off-the-job” expectation for most degree-linked apprenticeships is 20% (e.g. four days practical and Fridays at College or University). For nursing it can be 80%. This an, in practice mean 100% during the academic “term” with work-experience during week-ends and academic vacations.

Meanwhile most on-line health systems are “As user friendly as a cornered rat”

The Labour party struck a chord with its promise of no more digital only public services and to recruit 5,000 more digital advisors to offer telephone support. The problem is the public experience of trying to get through on the phone – whether to GP surgery, hospital clinic, council or Government agency. A better pledge would have been “Make government digital services usable by those who need them most“- beginning with those of the NHS. The scale and nature of the problem illustrates why such a pledge would be so popular:

Barely half of UK adults have ever filled in a Government form on-line. Barely half of UK pensioners have been on-line other than to read e-mails in the last three months. Confidence in the usability, security and efficiency of public sector on-line services is least among those who among those who should benefit most. This leads to unnecessary suffering not just the failure to realise expected savings.

The reasons include:
• Many Central Government and most local government systems do not meet the standards for disability access that are supposedly mandatory.
• Many systems are not designed for secure use by those most reliant on them, the elderly, vulnerable or disabled. Few have secure processes to enable the use of trusted (including by the recipient) intermediaries – e.g. Registered Carer, Citizens Advice Volunteers etc.
• There is a confusion of user interfaces, duplication of information collection and authentication requirements and a lack of joined up, let alone shared policies on digital design, security, identity, data sharing/protection and inter-operability.
• There is a lack of reliable, secure, supported access, especially in rural and inner city areas where physical access (e.g. local or central government offices, post offices, police stations, GP surgeries) is being reduced. Call centres are no substitute.
• The fear of on-line fraud/abuse is compounded by the difficulty of reporting this to some-one who will provide victim support or take action to prevent repetition.

The solutions require the enforcement of existing policy and good practice, not new legislation

It is ten years since “The Politicians Guide to Picking Winners“. The last Labour Government was still in power. Despite the efforts of Frances Maude at Cabinet Office a new generation is set to revert to past bad practice. The main glimmer of hope, Labour’s promise to repeal IR35 has evaporated into a vague “review” , in the face of determined opposition from an unholy alliance of Unions and Outsource providers – determined to avoid their bargaining strength being undermined by the re-creation of a world of self-employed independent contractors.

I would have liked to see a simple three point plan in at least one of the manifestos.

  1. All Government funded/mandated systems should be designed and tested for use by their target audience with a ban on going live unless the responsible Minister can use them. A similar policy under the coalition government was quietly dropped after each successive attempt by an IT literate junior minister to use the Farm Payments system failed. Usability audits to be contracted to organisations like Abilitynet, Age Concern or ACRE (at full consulting rates to enable payment to testers from the target audiences).
  2. The DCMS full – fibre broadband programme should be used to supply full-fibre broadband to every Sub-Post Office and GP Surgery to enable them to be used as supported local access points to on-line public services, including health and welfare. Given the track record of the Post Office Horizon Project and of large NHS projects the implementation should be by an extension of the SME voucher programme, including support and training, with the National Federation of Sub Postmasters and a consortium of Practice Participation Groups contracted to test the usability of the systems and services on offer.
  3. The Government Digital Service should publish a list of which digital identity and transaction systems are recognised by Government Departments for which purposes/applications – and how much they charge/cost. These currently include a wide range of NHS, Pupil, Student, DWP, HMRC, Passport, Law Enforcement, Home Office and other numbering/identity systems and an equally wide variety of electronic procurement, invoicing, payment etc. etc. This should enable rationalisation as departments realise the potential for incremental cost savings and performance improvement while recognising that there is no “one size fits all”. This will also allow the quiet termination of the Verify programme, other than as the name of the list.

The biggest disappointment is the lack of attention to vocational skills as the way to sustainable growth.

The Conservatives have pledged to begin implementing the results of the Augar report with a serious injection of funding into Vocational Education. But they appear to have given priority to a points system for immigration to address skills shortages over the need to remove the obstacles to expanding employer driven apprenticeships and training programmes. The other parties appear to think that “freedom of movement”, alias letting immigration rip, whether from the EU or elsewhere, will provide the skills for infrastructure projects, the NHS and economic recovery. All also promise more money for teachers and schools but make no reference to the many systemic problems they face.

Below is a summary of what I think needs to happen, based on the four decades of material I handed over earlier this year:

Lifelong learning for all not just student debt for 50%

Problem

1) The skills in demand and the ability of technology-assisted education and training providers to respond are both changing faster than University and Schools planning, funding, course, content and examination regimes can handle. The century old hierarchy of Haldane Style committees of experts (extended over time from research to education and training policy and implementation as a whole) is no longer fit for purpose.
2) The current UK University Funding regime is economically and politically unsustainable. Standardised fees funded via student debt are unfair and unpopular with parents as well as students and graduates (who often cannot afford home or family after the cost of repayment). They distort markets with hidden cross-subsidies. They encourage high value UK graduates to emigrate. Academic rankings and promotion put winning pure research council challenges above funding from industry to support R&D for innovative products and services.
3) The current schools and college funding systems are similarly unsustainable. Increased pension charges will absorb all the additional funding announced. Funding is linked to performance in examinations which filter for academic rather than employment potential. Schools need to draw in the revenues which will enable them to serve the diversity of pupil needs and transform their education, using the wealth of on-line customised and personalised (AI based), content, planning, assessment and delivery materials and services becoming available. That may include the revenue streams from becoming local community hubs for life-long learning and leisure (including sporting and cultural).

Six point headline action plan

  1. Change the “vision” from half the population leaving home to go to university to most of the population in flexible, modular life-long learning, at least half at graduate and post graduate-level.
  2. Clarify ministerial, departmental and agency responsibilities and streamline the processes for consultation, funding, delivery and quality control currently spread across departments, agencies and quangoes.
  3. Allow academically or professionally accredited education, training (including recruitment) and assessment to be offset against tax, whether or not relevant to current employment and allow employers to offset all professionally accredited training costs, including schools programmes, work experience, recruitment, assessment, pastoral care, supervision etc against the apprenticeship levy.
  4. Encourage local skills partnerships which bring together Councils, LEPs, Employers large and small (public sector as well as private) to create skills incubators with access to international (not just national) programmes, materials and initiatives to enable residents and their children to acquire the skills of present and future
  5. Encourage schools/libraries to become community lifelong learning hubs /skills incubators, hosting access/support for apprenticeships, homework and sports clubs, using the revenues to also improve education. DfE to work with one or most syndicates of Lloyd’s underwriters to provide guidance and insurance cover for safe-guarding, health and safety, governor/trustee liability.
  6. Create the world’s largest education and training infrastructure utility by using contracts for public sector access and delivery to help bring together the Joint Academic Network (linking Universities and Colleges), the Grids for Learning (Providing Broadband to Schools) and the Open University.

Essential small print

• Allow expedited student debt repayment by individual or employer.
• Reintroduce state, local government and employer funded scholarships linked to future employment (for e.g. doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers) with a choice between full-time and degree-linked apprenticeships
• Remove funding council obstacles to Universities earning more from industry-driven degree-linked apprenticeships and research programme and acting as hubs for networked lifelong learning programmes
• Apply industry-strength market research and simulation techniques to all education and training policy initiatives to help assess the relevance of the objectives and likelihood of success.
• Agree and publicise employer-driven processes (involving reputable professional bodies and trade associations) for recognising materials, courses, qualifications, certifications and registers for inclusion in publicly funded programmes.
• Support cross-boundary cooperation to address existing gaps and meet new needs as they emerge. Many of the skills of the future are global and will be accredited internationally. Brexit makes it critical that UK employers and training providers help set global, not just EU, standards.
• Central government should train its own staff in the skills they may need at all levels (from end-user through technical and professional to senior responsible owner).
• Use the Public Service (Social Value) Act to require those bidding for publicly funded contracts (including outsourcing, “strategic” partnerships, infrastructure construction etc.) to employ at least 10% accredited trainees and/or apprentices.

Use any opportunities at hustings or elsewhere to try to extract pledges to covering those points above with which you agree.

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