The single biggest oversight in all the party manifestos

You can take your pick of tax rises or spending cuts on 7 May, but a truly digital approach to government could carve a better path altogether.

03 May 2015

In case you missed it, the main parties have all now published their manifestos for the general election. Digital and tech issues get varying degrees of attention: if you need a quick roundup then Helen Milner has covered digital inclusion, ORG has taken a detailed look at surveillance, Glyn Moody has penned a guide to digital policy, and Charles Arthur has compiled an overall tech roundup.

There will be plenty of time to debate individual policies, but there’s one big thing missing across the board: a bold, disruptive digital vision for the very fabric of government itself.

This matters, because all of the parties are working from the same basic logic: bring down the deficit whilst maintaining public services, necessitating some combination of tax rises and / or spending cuts. There is certainly enough variation in the detail to make the ballot box choice an interesting one. But from 30,000 feet the difference is harder to see: public sector net debt as a share of national income is forecast to fall from 80% to between 78% and 72%, and government spending as a share of national income from 41% to between 38% and 36%.

But what if there was a way to deliver all the services we need for far less money, or better still, massively improved services without spending more?

The cause for hope is somewhere far beyond the edge of government, where something incredible is happening. It’s a world where 13 employees at Instagram can build a $1 billion business, and 100 employees at WhatsApp can run a service with more than 400 million users. A world where Uber and Airbnb are breaking the status quo by unlocking the power of platforms and communities. And where Google X and Tesla are on a mission to change forever how we live on planet Earth.

Back in the public sector, some of this thinking is starting to catch on. Mark Thompson was on the Today programme recently talking about community nursing in the Netherlands, where in one area just 30 administrators support 7,000 front-line staff. (Martha Lane Fox also mentioned this example in her Dimbleby Lecture). The Government Digital Service has delivered on GOV.UK, made twenty exemplar services available, and is starting to make inroads into Government as a Platform. And still we need to aim higher.

I’m well aware that running a country is considerably more complicated than sharing a photo or booking a taxi. But whichever government we choose will have more than enough options for salami slicing cuts and 10% improvements. If there was ever a time to push hard for a 10x solution, then surely this is it.