Jeremy Hunt, the UK Conservatives' handsome, dynamic, young (42), wealthy Culture spokesman, was our guest at a power lunch in Westminster this week. His theme was policy for the Google generation. Technological advances – computers, mobile phones, the internet, interactive online stuff – have given people access and empowerment in ways they've never had before. But, think the Conservatives, politics and public policy has not moved on. Sure, you can file your tax form or buy a fishing permit online, but so what?
Contrast that with sluggishness with non-government action. Within minutes of the 9/11 attacks, websites were carrying eyewitness accounts that were as reliable as any that the BBC ran a day later. Within days of Hurricane Katrina, while the US government was still in paralysis, other websites had sprung up, linking the various relief agencies and helping people to track missing friends and relatives.
Technology, in other words, can enable us to decentralize public services and empower private or voluntary groups to deliver things better, quicker, and more locally. It enables millions of people to get involved in service delivery, where before it was run by an elite few. It allows the competition of millions of ideas where before things were decided in Whitehall. It means you don't have to have a top-down social and policy structure. It can be led by the people – what Hunt and his colleagues call 'collaborative individualism'.
They have a point. But how can this bottom-up revolution get started if big state institutions remain intact, crowding out everyone else? How will a thousand flowers bloom if state deadwood keeps out the sun? Time to get out the pruning shears.