Is Digital Britain heading for the long grass?
Now the dust has started to settle on Digital Britain it seems timely to try and take some sort of perspective on the process and its likely outputs.
As the introduction to the final chapter of the hefty report rather pretentiously notes: “A goal without a plan is just a wish” (Antoine de Saint-Exupery), and that statement is even more pertinent when you reflect that the architect and sponsor of the report – Lord Carter – is already preparing to head off to pastures new at the end of July.
With a new media minister who hasn’t been involved in the report freshly in post too, it is difficult to see who is going to drive through the many consultations and proposals in Digital Britain. Indeed, listening to Ben Bradshaw at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Media summer reception at Channel 4 the other night, some observers detected a distinct sense of the report being “kicked into the long grass”. Speaking the day after the report’s release – admittedly in one of his first outings under his new portfolio – Bradshaw only dwelt on Digital Britain for two or three minutes. And his observation that the commentariat would hopefully look back on the initiative far more favourably than it had been received initially definitely had undertones of “not invented here”.
When I spoke to Stephen Carter on Wednesday he was adamant that Chapter 9 of the report laid out a clear plan for the delivery of the proposals in the report and he said that, while there are several follow-up consultations, there is a clear difference between open consultation and procedural consultation, which most of those in Digital Britain are. He characterised these as “implementation consultations” required by law when putting new legislation together, rather than more convoluted and time-consuming talking shops.
I also detected a frustration from Carter that many people were casting judgment on the report and determining its legacy without actually having read it. But I’m afraid that’s what happens when you release a substantial document and several weighty additional tomes at 3.30pm in the afternoon, giving journalists a relatively short time to digest the contents before their copy deadlines.
It would be a shame if the process does turn out to have been largely fruitless. The procedural and logistical vagaries of producing and implementing public policy through the machinations of government should not be underestimated.
There are some positive elements to Digital Britain – one can only hope that the will still exists in the relevant government departments to see these developments through to completion once Carter has departed.
For his part, he refused to be drawn on speculation that he is interested in the vacant ITV chief executive’s job – or even whether such an application is possible given the rules of the Commissioner for Public Appointments on departing ministers and them moving into commercial employment.
Carter’s only comment was that he is “off to France” when he leaves office, though there is little doubt that if he is saying “au revoir” to Digital Britain he will soon be saying “bonjour” to a lucrative new job in the private sector.