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David Cameron on the age of ‘people power’

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Conservative Party leader David Cameron addressed the TED conference in California earlier this month, with a speech focused on Information Technology and behavioural economics.

In the speech, he outlined two principles of Conservative philosophy and how these can address a new era, where governments have less power (and less money) and people empowered by technology have more:

  • Power to the People – ‘if you give people more power and control over their lives, give them more choice, then you can empower them to create a better society’.
  • Understanding of People – ‘we believe in going with the grain of human nature…treat people as they are, rather than how you would like them to be’.

Power to People: Transparency

Cameron explained how complete transparency can make a huge difference. He noted the example of Missouri’s Accountability Portal, which allows citizens to search details of all state spending by category, contract, agency and vendor. Through this, citizens can hold their elected representative more accountable for spending, and ensure greater value for money through visibility of current expenditure:

We’re now living in a post-bureaucratic age, where genuine people-power is possible…This can make an enormous difference in Transparency, Choice and Accountability.

He explained how if the Conservatives win the next election, they will make details of all spending over £25,000 available online. They’ll also make contracts available online, including the terms and conditions. The aim is to enable the public to root out wasteful spending and poorly negotiated contracts, and open up the procurement system to more small businesses. (see Conservative draft Transparency plan below)

Power to People: Choice

Cameron explained how the consumer revolution, which allows us to compare products and buy virtually everything online, has hardly touched public services such as education, healthcare or policing. Through making information such as ‘what operations work out properly, what records doctors have, the cleanliness of hospitals’ easily available online, the public can make more informed decisions about the public services they choose and the value for money these provide.

Power to People: Accountability

Citizens should be able to see what crimes have been committed, where, when and by whom. Providing this data on maps – such as Chicago’s Crime map – means citizens can hold the Police to account.

By making performance and spending data available for
public scrutiny, government can engage citizens and other stakeholders in thinking about organizations’ performance. Through involving citizens in establishing, implementing and evaluating measures of performance, government can foster a broader awareness and sense of ownership among citizens.

Understanding people

Cameron explained how the Conservatives were working with, and being advised by, behavioural economists such as Cass Sunstein (author of Nudge) and Richard Thaler. He explained how ideas and trends within behavioural economics, could be used as the basis for smarter policy and more effective adherence to government objectives.

As an example, he explained how the best way to get people to become more energy efficient was to compare their energy spending against that of their energy conscious neighbors. He underlined how that sort of behavioural economics can transform people’s behavior in a way that government ‘badgering’ cannot.

Towards the end of the talk he quoted Robert F. Kennedy’s observation on Gross National Product:

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

He finished with the view that Robert Kennedy’s dream can be more easily realised by taking advantage of advances in Information Technology, and the changes in behavioural economics.

Related:

  • Conservative’s Transparency plan
  • [Video] on Missouri’s Accountability Portal
  • The Guardian’s blog of Cameron’s TED talk
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