Carrot or Stick? On Parliaments, ICT and Innovation

One of my last gigs for the Hansard Society was a presentation to the Global Centre of ICT in Parliament in Geneva. It was for a workshop leading up to the Centre’s full-blown conference the next day.

The subject of the workshop and my presentation was parliaments and innovative applications of ICT. Apparently I got a few people’s backs up. Good.

I won’t say black when you say tomato when you say tomato; my outlook is sunny; I’m not in-your-face. But, yes, while a lot of the presentations at the workshop were rosy, I delivered a downbeat critique of how parliaments have approached innovation.

Have a read at the transcript and let me know your thoughts.

I did not say that parliaments haven’t got involved in innovation. I stated that they had but explained that they did it badly and it was affecting their ability to do their core business – representation, scrutiny and law-making – in our contemporary societies.

The delegates at the workshop were representing parliaments from across the world. I’ve apologised to the few of them who felt uncomfortable. But I also pointed out to them that many more delegates had said they appreciated the objectivity and some even showed the presentation to their bosses to strengthen their cases for more and better ICT innovation. Some used it as it a carrot, some used it as a stick.

Parliaments have to admit to using ICT poorly and that their probing and planning of what it might do for them in the future has been particularly defective. The good news is that putting things right is an inexpensive, quick-win waiting to happen to parliaments.

My first bit of advice to parliaments? Sign up to get involved in the international community of practice being put together by the team at the Global Centre.

5 thoughts on “Carrot or Stick? On Parliaments, ICT and Innovation

  1. A fine and well-judged presentation Ross, and great to have you back online.

    My take on this:

    In the long term, new forms of social and technological interaction with the content of government will change the shape and character of government in as profound a way as the new forms of social and technological interaction with music are changing the music industry.

    In the meantime, the threefold challenge for government as a learning organisation is to:

    1. be open to the changes and cultivate experimentation and innovation;

    2. sustain a mature and realistic dialogue with the initial participants about the initial limits of what is possible in terms of tangible results;

    3. (and hardest of all) ensure that, within those limits, the tangible results materialise.

  2. Of course, these comparisons can only be taken so far, but I agree with you that our public sector would do well to investigate the experiences of their private sector peers. Were you thinking of a particular illustrative example?

  3. From my perspective the key dimension is open/closed rather than private/public. And the private sector is just as prone to pursuing a closed strategy.

    Private sector institutions are encountering the profundity of the changing possibilities earlier because creative destruction of institutional forms happens far faster and with far greater frequency in the private sector.

    Indeed, in the public sector the creative destruction of institutional forms (as opposed to the political initiatives that ripple through them) tends to happen on such a long time cycle that the sense of incumbency is barely apparent.

    ICT initiatives that are bolted on to existing institutional forms, or that seek simply to recreate the historical forms and relationships in a new technological form, are more likely to prove fundamentally disappointing or unsatisfactory to all concerned.

    ICT initiatives that enable the reinvention of the institutional forms, and the relationships between them, are more likely to prosper and prove more engaging for all involved.

    However, at the outset at least, the former are thought to be easier to champion internally; resulting in the negative feedback loop you have identified.

    You are absolutely right though that there are inexpensive quick wins out there—of which, I think Simon Dickson’s recent work is an excellent example.

    The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards from such approaches are greater too. And pursuing them simply—although the simplicity is easier to see in retrospect than prospect—involves the individual and institutional courage to be different: less controlling and more open.

  4. If I had a time-machine and plenty of petrol, one thing I’d like to do is go back to around 1997 and advise the UK Parliament against launching itself into public engagement online, and instead start off applying ICT to internal processes. That way when officials and parliamentarians did come out into the civic commons they would have been more confident and effective.

    Then it would have been off to scare my 17 year old self into trying harder in my first year of uni :)

    Wonderful thing hindsight…

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