Blair the Technophobe

I had the opportunity to put questions to the Prime Minister this morning as a member of the Liaison Committee. I wanted to find out how confident we could be that he would meet his targets to make efficiency savings through information technology given the poor record of Government on big projects.

So, I was a little cheeky and asked if his reputation as being something of a technophobe was fair and, for once received a straight reply, as he admitted he was. Following this rich vein, I asked if he had ever visited the Government’s multi-million pound eGovernment portal website, and he helpfully admitted that no, he hadn’t. Chancing my arm a third time, I wanted to know if he knew the address of this much-heralded new portal, and, oh dear, he didn’t…

It seems that the marketing team for Direct.gov.uk have a little work to do if their services are to be accessed by the man who is responsible for the overall running of Government.

TRANSCRIPT FROM LIAISON COMMITTEE SESSION BELOW

Q101 Mr Allan: Prime Minister, do you accept you will not meet your Gershon Review efficiency targets unless Government dramatically improves its ability to purchase the large IT systems it requires?
Mr Blair: The IT systems are a vital part of it, yes.
Q102 Mr Allan: Given the performance to date on systems like the Child Support Agency, is this something which is up there on your public services agenda that you receive regular reports on?
Mr Blair: It is. Some of the IT projects do not go well and some of them do go well. Funnily enough, if you look at the comparison between public and private sector on IT projects it is not very much different.
Q103 Mr Allan: You have something of a reputation of being a technophobe on a personal level, is that fair?
Mr Blair: I am afraid that is fair actually, yes.
Q104 Mr Allan: It is. Have you ever visited the multi-million pound central government website that you have set up to get us all to use these new electronic government facilities?
Mr Blair: I think that is a very unfair question. The answer is no.
Q105 Mr Allan: Do you know the address of this multi-million pound project?
Mr Blair: No.
Q106 Mr Allan: Your head of e.government, Ian Watmore, would be able to tell you all about it.
Mr Blair: That is exactly why delegation is such an important part of the job of a prime minister.
Q107 Mr Allan: Finally, can you tell us when you last met with your head of e.government and how often you do?
Mr Blair: Yes. I cannot remember the exact date but we have regular meetings on this. The use of the new technology is a very, very important thing for Government. Online, for example, people are able to do far more than they ever used to. Some of the self-assessment on tax, there are now lots of people doing that online.
Q108 Mr Allan: Not the Prime Minister.
Mr Blair: There is not me doing it online, no, I have to say. I apologise for that, I have a few other things on my plate.

16 Comments

  • Mischevious and amusing… what I’ve never understood is: Blair clearly understands that IT is important. He doesn’t understand it himself, but then he doesn’t appoint anyone who obviously understands it either. I can’t think of a single minister who has the grasp required. Most companies would have a CIO or a CTO who understood the issues. But Government has no one. It seems that Blair wants the policy setting role and is happy to do that without the skills.

    Instead o poking fun at him – why don’t you ask him for a job?

  • Rob Knight wrote:

    The government seems to regard IT as merely a “plubming” issue – doubtless important to the overall running of things, but something best dealt with out of the way. This is especially frustrating because the various criteria required for e-government to be viable are now coming into place, but the government doesn’t seem to have enough of a creative strategy for taking advantage of this.

  • Gordon Sim wrote:





    Do you not think Richard you have missed a golden opportunity to bring to the attention of the PM the all important item of “Software Patents” especially as the PM is intent on going into the EU.
    This item is bypassing all democratic practices/processes with the all important EU JURI committee overwhelmingly voting to send this item back for a restart, yet now there is another fiddle factor going on in getting this raised as an “A Item” with the finance committee, ie passed on the nod and no discussion.
    This item could lose us thousands of jobs with the total loss of innovation and competion in the technology sector in the UK, especially now it has been shown that approx 90% of all software development across Europe come from small and independant developers.
    Also still waiting to see the reply letter from the MP concerned with CII & Software Patents !.
    Rgds Gordon.

  • Jon Harvey wrote:

    Please withold my email address if you publish this comment, it is currently spam free :o )

    I write computer software for a living, I spend more than 8 hours a day living and breathing IT. However, I clearly see every day in this business that you don’t really need to be technically minded to be very senior in an organisation’s IT heirachy, as long as you admit that fact, not interfere too much, and delegate to a chain of competent people who have the skills and interests to make it happen.

    In fact I expect that to have both the in-depth technical knowledge *and* the political savvy to survive in a job where you have the occasional ear of the Prime Minister would take a very unique person indeed.

    You wouldn’t expect the PM to file his own taxes on paper would you? He’d have someone to do it wouldn’t he? So why do you expect him to do the same online? I don’t expect he even sits at a keyboard very often, or even writes an email. That isn’t after all his job! I myself don’t regularly visit my company’s website (although I do subscribe to our Press Release RSS feed) so I wouldn’t expect the PM to visit his, either.

    I agree that it’s shocking the way that big IT projects fail, and there are no doubt many reasons for this, but I find it surprising that you think turning Tony into a slashdotter would make a lot of difference to the projects’ success rates!

  • Politicians: IT and Trees
    Blair’s answers to Richard Allan…

  • Identity Cards Bill – today is the last chance for MPs to show real opposition
    Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday included showed how little Tony Blair is willing to debate the real detail of his Identity Cards Bill, which is due to complete it’s main rubber stamping session in the Commons today, in under 4 hours…




  • Nic Ferrer writes:

    Mischevious and amusing… what I’ve never understood is: Blair clearly understands that IT is important. He doesn’t understand it himself, but then he doesn’t appoint anyone who obviously understands it either.

    The problem is, if you don’t understand it yourself, you can’t easily recognise other people who do understand it — and run the risk of assuming that people who happen to speak the jargon know what they’re doing :(

  • Richard Allan wrote:

    Jon asks how much we should expect Blair to know about technology and if this matters. This is a fair question and I certainly do not expect the PM to be versed in the arts of COBOL or C++ coding. But there is a debate to be had about the extent to which it is OK for the heads of businesses that are heavily IT-dependent not to have to learn more about how this works in general terms and experience it for themselves. John Lettice in his piece in The Register reflected this serious point that I was trying to get at in the Committee. More from me on it later (after the ID Card farce).

  • Nic says: “Most companies would have a CIO or a CTO who understood the issues. But Government has no one..” But Government has its new CIO Ian Watmore. A lot rests on his shoulders – not just getting value for all the money spent, but managing upwards in the political world of Whitehall.

  • William suggests that Ian Watmore is a kind of CIO or CTO. But he isn’t. He’s not a member of the cabinet or any kind of high level management structure. If a minister isn’t to be responsible then it should be a civil servant attached to the head of the civil service, or the perm sec of HMT. It should be *that* senior. I suspect Watmore will not be able to get involved in decision making in any meaningfull way.

  • Alfred Reading wrote:




    As a professional engineer who was in the Civil Service, I tried to get several IT projects started to help me manage projects. Administrators with no technical knowledge hold the purse strings and do not understand the case put to them. The attitude often quoted that ‘experts should be on tap not on top’ ensures that the projects that do get through will be controlled by those administrators and, doing the best they can, they set objectives which bear little resemblance to what the users actually need. Only when expertise, responsibility and funding are combined can real success be hoped for.

  • Charles Arthur… with an interesting use for our MORI Audience results
    Technology journalist Charles Arthur has an interesting use for our MORI research in a piece over at Netimperative. He points to results showing the increasing pervasiveness and authority of Internet-based content, and contrasts this with the lack of …

  • Given that the PM doesn’t have a clue about anything vaguely technological, it’s surprising that he’s able to make such firm statements of “fact” about it. Oh, hang on – he’s a politician…

  • Now, this is useful. P. 29 of my PhD read ‘altohugh Blair is known as a techno-phobe rather than -enthusiast … ‘. I had to rephrase as it was pointed out that there was not ‘enough evidence’. Too late now I reckon, but the book will read ‘although Blair is admittedly a techno-phobe rather than -enthusiast (Liaison Committee, 2005: q103)’. Much better.

  • Jon Harvey – I don’t necessarily exoect Mr Balir to file his own tax returns online, but I am surprised that he hasn’t even tried out a website that he seems to believe is very important. I am a councillor in Oxfordshire and do not count myself as hugely technologically minded. But when we set up new things on our website I do at least look at it, primarily to check that it is user friendly to non-technical people like me. There is a serious point here – on the IT issue, as with so many others, this Government is very good at making pronouncements about how things should be run (by local government for example) but hasn’t really got much of a grip about how realistic these projects are. The Gershon review about efficiency savings is a good example. The review says that in theory councils should be able to make a certain level of efficiency savings each year. This has now ben factored into the Government’s grant to all councils WITHOUT any real practical work on how deliverable these savings actually are, how long they will take, what investment is needed up front to achieve them, or whether all councils are equally able to make the savings. Mr Blair’s attitude reflects this general Government attitude which leads in may cases to money being wasted and lots of time and hassle for people who could use their time more effectively.
    Neil.

  • [...] A refreshign expression. Never used before, but the sound of it rings true for once. Thanks to Richard Allan, MP, who instigated the following conversation with the Prime Minister. [...]

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