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Talking to themselves - how uk.gov 'consults' on IT exports

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Comment The story so far - on Friday 7th December, Lord Digby Jones announced a joint venture industry and government strategy to market the UK Information Communication Technology (ICT) sector to the world. On closer inspection, this turned out to be an outline marketing strategy open to consultation = allegedly.

Contributing to the consultation was however a little difficult initially, as the body involved, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) had been happily publicising the wrong URL for several weeks, and The Register had some sport with this. It seems perfectly possible that the "consultation" could have run all the way to the end of January (the closing date) without anybody noticing if The Register hadn't pointed it out, and from our diligent researches over the past week it still seems feasible for there be be virtually no input and virtually nobody at the government end caring one way or the other.

But as we're now going to give you the joined-up route map that UKTI seems incapable of devising, they'll maybe get a little more input than they deserve. The correct URL that now appears in the rewritten UKTI announcements, www.ukictmarketingstrategy.co.uk, doesn't actually give you direct access to the strategy documents at all; first, you have to register. The Register and a couple of its test sock puppets applied for registration on Monday 10th, and again on Thursday 13th. We also put in a call to the contact listed in the announcement on Tuesday 11th, leaving a message asking about the registration process and about the number of people who'd registered for the consultation so far.

We haven't received a call back on these queries, but on Thursday 13th The Register and Sock Puppet 1 were cleared for entry. At time of writing, Sock Puppet 2's Thursday application has had no response, several commenters to our previous story testify that they've not been given access, and we are unaware of anybody other than The Register being given access to the system. It would seem clear that if this is an an automated system it's broken, but as both Register sock puppets have obviously false names, if humans are vetting registrations they probably shouldn't have let Sock Puppet 1 through.

Whatever, UKTI doesn't look like getting much traffic through that route, and the clock is ticking on the consultation period. But in a masterstroke of non-joined-up communications strategy, UKTI turns out to have announced an alternative location for the main document on Monday 10th. Brilliant. Lord Jones makes his big speech accompanied by dud publicity for a system that doesn't work anyway on the Friday, then when even fewer people are paying attention you tell people about an alternative route in. Here, you'll find a link to the strategy document itself, here. This contains contact details for filing your response, meaning you don't actual need the broken registration system anyway.

Does anybody much care about this little UKTI endeavour? Probably not, and despite appearances even The Register doesn't care particularly; we're simply holding this particular exercise up to public ridicule as an example of the generally dismal, ineffectual, incompetent and perfunctory job the government does when it pretends it's soliciting other people's opinions. Not all consultations are faked to fit the intended policies (although many of them are), but most of them fail because nobody in particular really wants to hear from 'stakeholders' or the public (especially not the public), and a handful of civil servants and hirelings are left to make an uncoordinated mess of checking the boxes associated with pretending to care.

Stand back a little though, and take a look at the boxes they're managing not to check. A good number of these are set down in the Cabinet Office's Code of Practice on Consultation, which has knocked around a bit in the briar-patch of broken links that demonstrates .gov.uk's mastery of ICT, but which is currently to be found at BERR, which was a silly departmental name even before we pointed out that it was Verlan for 'Arab' (which we just did).

In principle, the Code of Practice isn't a bad document. Rigorous adherence to it would not on its own make a difference to government consultations, because the government still couldn't publicise its way out of a paper bag, but it would at least demonstrate an honest if futile intent to make a proper fist of open government. But few if any consultations check all of its boxes, and many of them fail so obviously that one is driven to the conclusion that the people running them are either entirely unaware of the rules, or they don't give a fig for them.

So take the UKTI consultation. According to the code, a consultation should run for a minimum of 12 weeks. This one was was announced on 7th December, running until 31st January, so fail*. The consultation should be widely available (fail), it needs to be started early in the policy development process (fail, we'll get to telling you why in a minute). If the consultation lasts less than 12 weeks, the document should explain why (fail). Consultations should be completely open, with nothing ruled out (fail), and they should supply a list of those already consulted (people have been, it doesn't fail). Consultations should be available and easily found on the internet from the day that the consultation is launched (fail, really fail.

In addition, the results should be published within three months of the closure of the consultation period - we'll be watching.

Now, back to the actual proposed ICT strategy, and to 'what's the point?' The 'outline' strategy has been devised by Gartner, in the form of a draft strategy document and eight supporting sector reviews. The latter are not as far as we can see available anywhere other than on the registration site, but they're pretty much statements of the bleeding obvious. Nor - and we mean no offence to Gartner here, they're just doing the job they were paid for - is the draft strategy much more than a statement of the bleeding obvious.

It presents Gartner's famous 'hype cycle' adoption curve, and divvies up world markets into opportunities based on who's got money and who's buying stuff. Nice complicated looking charts, but if you're in this game you really need to have figured this out for yourself already. There is, on page 22, a quite hilarious suggestion that the UK can earn export bucks on the basis of its strength in e-government ("Under the UK government's national strategy, Transformational Government, ICT is seen as a major enabler: a number of key government programmes made possible by ICT are under way, including the National Identity Scheme and National Programme for IT in the NHS (the world's largest civilian IT project costing over £12 billion)." Yup, we'll all earn fortunes based on the massive success of these two, won't we?

And then, after all the boilerplate scene-setting, we get proposals for the weighting of marketing activities, ranging from reactive for low opportunity territories to proactive with single point of contact/country manager for high. Which we take to mean press releases extolling UK ICT with a smattering of HMG employees on point to support the message in rich countries with big markets. More detailed proposals include "senior ministers with support from industry to target key potential investors and supply chains", a network of "ICT ambassadors" in key markets, "an online presence to be developed as a focus for information on the UK ICT sector available to partners" (you may feel the omens aren't good for that one), a prospects database and a programme of market research into attitudes towards UK ICT and its principal competitors (full list page 31).

Essentially, the proposals occupy two pages out of 36, and amount to the UK government doing pretty much what it's always done to 'boost exports' - spend money on boastful press releases and marketing programmes nobody pays attention to, organise tragic national enclaves at overseas trade shows and host dud cocktail parties. Most UK export successes will have ignored this process (if they noticed it in the first place), but HMG will nevertheless co-opt them as further proof of the 'success of its activities. Check the consultation questions on page 33, and you'll see there's really no room at all for serious discussion about the point of it all, but as they won't be getting much response anyway, that's possibly just as well. ®

* We have shamelessly swiped the fail tag from Uncov, which deploys it in brutally forensic examinations of Web 2.0 inanities, and which deserves more readers. Off you go...

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