When I want to write about innovation a political agenda looms. When I write about what the politicians are doing to the information industry I find it is so deeply unsatisfying and depressing that I am forced back onto descriptions of industry self-survivalism! But at times there is no choice: politics is a burden we all have to bear, and we in the UK bear a particularly heavy burden at the moment. Unless you have been sheltering in an igloo in Lapland awaiting Father Christmas, you cannot have failed to hear something of Britain’s latest Euro Row, which hit gale force this week with the ferocity of the storms that hit Scotland and generated 165 mph winds and set wind turbines alight. The political equivalent of this was a British Prime Minister using his veto in a European Summit and ending up in a minority of four, which is likely to diminish to one.
Why is this in the least interest of the information industry? While Mr Cameron acted in order to prevent his coalition from breaking down and splits developing in his own party, his ostensible reason was to prevent the European Union passing laws disadvantageous to the city of London. Financial services are 10% of UK GDP. They must be protected as the key to success in Europe. Yet, as Lionel Barber, Editor of the Financial Times, notes in his editorial this morning, there is nothing to prevent the 26members of the Union who will now get together in tighter conclave on budget, tax and trading matters to pass laws which discriminate against City interests, as long as those laws do not infringe the current regulation of the greater community of which the UK is still a member. The Prime Minister is claiming victory: he should take care. Every British victory in Europe since 1815 has been followed by Britain losing the peace.
And have a care too in more domestic matters. The junior Business minister, David “Two Brains” Willetts, supported a leadership speech on the importance of the British role in Big Pharma by undertaking to secure, despite lively public protests, the release of anonymized datasets covering diagnostic and prescription practice in the NHS, still the world’s largest health service. Yet he appears to forget that it is impossible to do this unilaterally. Not only are the major pharma players global titans, but providing UK-based players like GSK with information denied to their German or French rivals would be a state aid, or at least a restraint of trade, condemning UK government to the dock in the courtrooms of that very alliance whose powers they have recently been diminishing. And do these data and their availability do anything to promote employment in research labs in the UK? Nothing at all: we are missing the point about a networked economy if we think otherwise.
Elsewhere in the deeply paranoid British civil service, we continued last week in the hugely entertaining game of finding the pea under the information walnut shells. Having declared a Public Data Corporation to trade government-created content with the private sector, public consultations have led to real divisions about what this superstructure is meant to achieve. Local government and SOCITM, the public sector IT professionals, clearly read the intent rather than the effect of the proposals; This is an effort to frustrate the privatization of the UK Land Registry, Ordnance Survey and Met Office by regulatory obfuscation – and it is working splendidly well. Meanwhile, a near meaningless consultation on MiData – a government plan for re-regulating identity protection – has created a panel of private sector players, including Google and the real villains (energy utilities, high street banks) to give consumers more assurance that their identity information is not being grossly misused. The government’s seriousness on this topic is underlined by the size of their budget of £10m ($15m)!
Finally, the week ended with the revelation that school examination boards regularly brief teachers, in seminars paid for by schools, on what the upcoming examination is likely to cover. This is apparently scandalous, as if the huge National Curriculum requirement could ever be fully examined without giving hundreds of question options in the exam papers. What is the purpose of the examination if it is not to test what has been taught? As a result, several examiners have been suspended for cheating, several inquiries have been set in train, and the interesting idea flated that all the examination boards should be combined, and then privatized (since they would then be easier to regulate, fine, and would face regular contract renewal. Pearson already own one board. And ETS formerly held the SATS marking contract but lost it after an equally unilluminating controversy about performance. Change in outcomes then may not be a direct result of the causes of concern.
Apart from which little happened in information market politics last week. Back to innovation next week, with a sigh of relief.