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'Top down politics is no longer sustainable in a bottom-up age'

Thought-provoking and rather more valuable than the thing I just read — George Osborne's talk at the RSA last week, 'Recasting the political settlement for the digital age'. Paul Miller drew my attention to it with his post:

Normally, listening to politicians talking about technology is a bit embarrassing. They fall into lots of very obvious traps and sound very naive. But the shadow chancellor has met the people, read the books and obviously spends a fair amount of time online (using Firefox which earned him extra brownie points).

The speech begins:

We are all here this morning because we share a common belief: we believe in the power of technology - in its ability to help transform society for the better by giving individuals more freedom, more choice and ultimately more power. At heart we are technology optimists. Of course technological change isn't always easy to deal with because it so often disrupts the established way of doing things. … Last November, in a talk on politics in the internet age, I identified some of the key social changes that have been unleashed by this technological revolution. Today I want to go further …

You can read the speech in full here. It describes 'three pillars on which I believe this new political settlement should be built':

  • 'The first of these pillars is about equality - equality of information - or what Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google, called "the democratisation of access to information" when he spoke to our Party Conference. For centuries access to the world's information - and the ability to communicate it - was controlled by a few: the powerful, the wealthy and the well educated. … No longer is there an asymmetry of information between the individual and the State, or between the layperson and the expert. This shift is changing the world. It is empowering individuals; raising expectations of government services; and increasing accountability for all of us who work in the public sector and in politics. …
  • The second pillar of a new political settlement will be founded on new social networks. … On-line political networks are springing up in the UK too now - and interestingly they are almost all Conservative ones. There are those networks actively set up by the Conservative Party. … But it is not the official Conservative websites that I find most exciting. It is the unofficial ones. Take Conservativehome.com. … Although I, and other Shadow Cabinet members, am frequently the target of Conservativehome.com, it is for me unambiguously a good thing that it exists. … Top down politics is no longer sustainable in a bottom-up age. … 
  • The final pillar of this new political settlement is open source. … Open source politics means rejecting the old monolithic top-down approach to decision-making. It means throwing open the doors and listening to new ideas and new contributors. It means harnessing the power of mass collaboration. And rather than relying on the input of a few trusted experts, it means drawing on the skills and expertise of millions. … Companies are now increasingly using "Wikis" to solve internal problems - because you can have lots of people working on them at once. Those people don't necessarily have to work for the company. This is a radical departure from our traditional understanding of the business model. … Similar collaborative approaches could be applied in government. … The direction of travel is clear. The government needs to get onboard. … Another way the government could harness an open source approach is through the procurement of open source software. … Ever since I visited the headquarters of Mozilla in Palo Alto I have become a user of their open source Firefox web-browser. … most central governments departments make use of no open source software whatsoever. What's going wrong? The problem is that the cultural change has not taken place in government. … Not a single open source company is included in Catalyst, the government's list of approved IT suppliers. … Another problem has been the lack of open standards in government IT procurement. All too often, a government IT system is incompatible with other types of software, which stifles competition and hampers innovation. Looking at the litany of IT projects that have collapsed or spiralled over budget, it's clear too that this has meant billions of pounds wasted and public service reform being hampered. The government's entire approach needs to be overhauled.'

Striking in itself — a speech about the changed and still changing world in which politicians now work, the challenges, the ways forward — every educator should be reading it:

… the internet is like the child pushing at boundaries of authority and challenging the established way of doing things - the business models from the last century, traditional media, long accepted notions of national jurisdiction and concepts of governmental control. The challenge is for the "pushed" - probably most of us here in this room - to resist the urge to push back: to regulate and legislate; to try to tame and to control.

… the most basic reaction to new technology: doing the old thing a new way. Instead … successful companies are harnessing this new technology to do things in a new way …

What's needed in government is as much a cultural shift as a technological change. A shift to a culture that welcomes criticism and comment - then reacts to it. A shift to a culture that seeks customers' views and ideas at every stage of developing a service. And a shift to a culture where every service can be improved, and no service is ever fully developed. That means more than constantly tinkering with public services for the sake of it. It means being open to fresh thinking and input from both users and deliverers.

How are we, educators and schools, adapting and changing to life in this world?  How are we preparing our students for this world where technology has rendered knowledge abundant; where innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial flair and initiative are prized skills and qualities; where teenagers are collaborating and networking and hacking yet little or none of this is informing and transforming the formal curriculum? (For an index of numerous previous posts to do with education, click here.) The direction of travel is, indeed, clear and schools, too, need to get onboard.

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