Fraser Nelson

Why the Tories’ Californian strategy should be taken seriously

Why the Tories’ Californian strategy should be taken seriously
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A few months ago, I wrote a story about the “California Tories” and the extent to which Silicon Valley has affected the thinking of the people who will be running our country this time next year. I was teased about it later: what a pile of junk it all is, said a few right-thinking friends; why devote so many words to such a fluffy idea? My response: because the Tories take it so seriously, and because there might just be something in it. In my piece, I dropped in the fact that the Tories were thinking about swapping the NHS supercomputer idea for the free-to-use Google Health – and Sam Coates from the Times has much more on this today. His piece, and the response to it, has made me think of a comment left on my original magazine piece by ndm (not a regular CoffeeHouser, I don’t think) and it’s perhaps worth repeating here:

"I have read few more lunatic suggestions that the idea that Britain replace the NHS computer programme with 'free-to-use Google Health.' The last I heard the main guy responsible for Google Health had bailed leaving it in disarray. However, the idea that Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault solve any more than a microscopic part of the healthcare information infrastructure is ludicrous and a demonstration of woeful ignorance."

I have heard similar criticisms from those in the industry. This isn’t to say that the Tory idea is a bad one – just that it is a far more controversial one than you might think. And worthy of further exploration. Broadly speaking, I am a defender of the ‘California agenda’ but have a couple of reservations. My thoughts here:

1. THE E-VOLUTION I firmly believe that radical change can come from the way government treats information. Why have government produce its own, horribly expensive, bespoke software and IT spine, rather than use solutions already out there?  If PayPal can be trusted with the details of all your bank accounts, why not Google Health with your records? It is not as simplistic as this, and the Tories don’t pretend so. But the general theory is a sound one. The revolutionary trends in the real (ie, business) world in the last 15 years have all been about the flattening of hierarchies and the empowerment of the consumers. M&S doesn't decide what we wear, the BBC doesn't decide what we watch. All good stuff: it's high time government caught up.

2. TRANSPARENCY The Tories propose to pubish online every government expense over £25,000 – exposing bureaucrats to the wrath MPs have felt for their unjustified expeses. This could have the effect of a thousand efficiency tsars. Even better, make it £10,000 or lower. Who would not think twice before authorising it?

Then local government. Thatcher mandated local authorities to publish their expenses, thinking that the ensuing transparency would keep those expenses down. What she didn’t realise is that no one would bother to look up the documents – until the sleuths at the Taxpayers' Alliance started FOI-ing all the dodgy receipts and producing league tables. Think of the impact this tiny group of researchers has had. The Tories plan to force local government to release all its information electronically, on a standard platform. That way, anyone can set up software to scrutinise it. As Cameron says, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

3. REDEFINING PUBLIC SERVICE Websites like www.theyworkforyou.com and www.upmystreet.com have been set up to help the public scrutinise their MPs and find out more about schools, crime, etc. These are independent, organic groups – all the government did was make information available in a way that is useable. So a public service isn’t something that’s necessarily provided by the government, it’s just one enabled by it. This distinction is crucial to the Tories - I’m told Steve Hilton is now striking out the word ‘provided’ when he sees it in speeches and documents and having it replaced with ‘enabled’. This is to be encouraged. All we need is for Lansley to think like this about the NHS.

4. BUT… BEWARE THE APPEARANCE OF CORPORATISM Google’s motto is “don't be evil” but that will not necessarily protect it against being seen as sinister. To the Cameroons, Google may embody all that is free and virtuous and on-the-beach flexible working coolness. But if they’re not careful, it may look like plain old corporatism. Or starry-eyed young politicians who are mentally in California, doing plenty naïve policies because they want to make Britain into the West Coast (its finances are quickly heading that way.)

5. YOU CAN’T BRING IT HERE The worst aspect of this is when Cameron now and again lapses into how he wants to replicate Silicon Valley in Britain (only do it with green companies, link them up to investors and universities, have a new green stock market to provide funding for them, yada yada yada). Billions have been spent around the world in failed efforts to mimic Silicon Valley. Cameron should study the failures on this front before he sets out to add to them. Governments can’t pick winners or direct economies and shouldn’t try to: end of story.  

CoffeeHousers may be tempted to see this as hoodie-hugging, smoothie-gargling nonsense. But much of it can be seen as a new way of presenting old Conservatism. That's the whole secret behind these zeitgeisty books by American academics which are so beloved by the Tories - old ideas, dressed up as new ones. The Black Swan and the importance of unpredictability is simply an updated version of the basics of the Austrian School of Economics. The Long Tail is Burke's little platoons. All written up as a new idea for a young century when it's actually the perennial Conservative mission: trusting and empowering the masses. The California Agenda may look gimmicky, but there's real, solid Tory sense here. It's about far more than just getting into bed with Google. The Tories should be careful to make that point.