I’ve spent the morning at Entrepreneur Country, an excellent conference hosted by that charismatic champion of enterprise Julie Meyer.
The theme of the day: Politics not as usual. The core message: Britain is in a shocking mess, with our children bearing a generational burden of debt. The only solution to public finance hell: an utter rethinking of public services and government.
Stephan Shakespeare, co-founder of the AIM-listed polling business YouGov, gave a fascinating talk about the "post-bureaucratic age" and how this could – repeat, could – spell a "golden age" for entrepreneurship.
The theory, attributed to Conservative strategy guru Steve Hilton and a core element in modern Tory thinking, is this: the pre-bureaucratic age came before the invention of the telegraph and, thus, mass communications. In that era, government was only physically capable of achieving a certain amount because it did not have the widespread reach into all corners of society. Aside from waging wars, most government diktat was just that. Real "delivery" was done at a local level.
The invention of the telegraph changed all that; suddenly, mass communication was possible. And, boy, has government used it. With the power to reach all parts of society, government became increasingly centralised. Huge, bureaucratic structures developed and, through the 20th century, got bigger, more entrenched and, eventually, corrupted.
The internet has changed all that. No longer does government alone have access to information; no longer do a few channels of communication (ie, the major newspapers and broadcasters dominate). the centre is no longer efficient and cannot provide what people need.
Influence, too, is dispersing. An individual blogger such as Iain Dale can be as powerful as an entire media operation.
The internet also brings transparency. As quick as any event takes place, it can be broadcast, criticised, held to account. Shakespeare quoted the example of Windsor Council, which recently made its energy useage public and saw an immediate 15 per cent reduction in its energy bills. "People started turning the lights off as soon as they knew that anyone could take a look at their useage."
More broadly, transparency will change the relationship between government, citizens and, most relevant here, business, argue the post-bureaucrats.
Take, for example, government procurement. Today, if government wants to achieve something (building some new weapons; commissioning a public information campaign), it goes out to a roster of select, usually large, firms. Few opportunities for entrepreneurs exist in this system.
In the post-bureaucratic age, says Shakespeare, such procurement processes will be opened up, enabling more and more small firms to bid. On December 30, 2009, shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a competition, with a £1m prize, for "the best new technology platform that helps people come together to solve the problems that matter to them – whether that’s tackling government waste, designing a local planning strategy, finding the best school or avoiding roadworks."
This online platform, it was reported on Conservatives.com, "will then be used by a future Conservative government to throw open the policy making process to the public, and harness the wisdom of the crowd so that the public can collaborate to improve government policy."
Thus far, so very technocratic. For there must surely be questions about why "opening up" of government should inevitably lead to anything better than more opportunities for computer giants such as EDS who’ve already wasted (sorry, won) billions of pounds’ worth of our money on fantastically huge government IT projects; Labour MP and techno-expert reckons that, since 1997, £70bn has been lost on government IT projects. The history of government outsourcing should not be a guide to its future.
And, as the technology entrepreneur Sean Phelan (who created Multimap) pointed out this morning, transparency could become just one huge exercise in publicly funded number-crunching. For me, one of the big still-to-be-provens in the post-bureaucratic proposition is why, and how, it should lead to more locally based services.
Shakespeare argues that Britain’s giant fiscal deficit "can only be cut by changing the way we do things". Right now, he says, our free-at-the-point-of-delivery NHS is so sacred that no-one dare talk about changing it. By bringing entrepreneurs and small businesses into the process will enable them to propose new ideas for improving our health service, bringing in effective digital technology, enabling mobile-based diagnosis etc.
In the post-bureaucratic age, for the first time, small firms will be able to do big things, he insists. In the US, "open-source", "mashable" data (ie, government data made available to all so that it can be adapted) is seen as intrinsic to modern democracy.
Such debate will form no part of the forthcoming general election, says Shakespeare, yet it will shape Britain for decades to come. "Nobody in government can behave in a command-and-control way in future," he says. Technology will revolutionise bureaucracy. Interestingly, he also notes that margins for government work will inevitably shrink as data is democratised.
"In the depths of this crisis of government deficit, we have the seeds of the next golden period".