Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Ofcom facing a cull?

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Yesterday’s speech by Conservative leader, David Cameron, that a future Conservative government would have a ‘bonfire of quangos’, sketched today rather well by The Times, no doubt scored quite well on the scale of popular rhetoric for opposition politicians. And there’s no argument from this quarter with the principle that the business of government needs to be transacted by people who are democratically accountable – though I’m not sure I agree with Cameron’s implication that the ministers who oversee the work of such bodies are currently in any way unaccountable, or that such bodies run their work in an unaccountable way.

But it was the reference to Ofcom in the speech that struck me most of all. Cameron said that: ‘Ofcom as we know it will cease to exist. Its remit will be restricted to its narrow technical and enforcement roles. It will no longer play a role in making policy.’ Presumably policy will be left to the politicians (the example cited being regional news and Channel 4, both of which feature in the Digital Britain White Paper) with Ofcom confined to a future as a narrowly-defined implementer of regulations. Or not, if Jeremy Hunt’s comments about the need for ‘wholesale deregulation of the current broadband infrastructure’  earlier this year are an authoritative statement of Conservative policy in this area.

(As an aside, we might well question whether policy would in this instance really be left to the politicians or indeed to political advisers – a group of people perhaps more shadowy and less accountable than quangos. But, let that pass.)

Ofcom is a government authority charged with a major aspect of continuing government policy – Digital Britain – of key importance to Connect, and which has produced a considerable amount of work in its area since being set up, as well as having a key role to play not only in defining but also delivering Britain’s digital future. It is not an organisation which would automatically spring to mind as one deserving of political obloquy. On top of a pay freeze this year, it’s also an organisation whose staff morale must right now be flying southwards at a faster rate of knots than Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit from the Premiership. Ofcom was, however, established by the incoming Labour government in 1997 as a means of bringing together communications policy making under one roof, rather than the diversity of bodies to which it was hitherto distributed, and indeed with such a project as Digital Britain in mind. These circumstances of its birth may well by themselves account for why Ofcom occupied such a central role in Cameron’s speech.

It seems to me that we need a body such as Ofcom to launch initiatives such as Digital Britain – a discussion document with a clear lead-in to policy, rooted within sponsoring government departments and where the team responsible has deliberately sought to instigate a national debate about the way forward both via the Unconferences and the Digital Britain forum, and on the widest possible terms. Digital Britain has actually been a very successful example of public involvement in policy making – and one therefore rooted very firmly within traditions of policy accountability, and one which has built on 21st century technology (blogs, Twitter, etc) to boot.

Cameron needs to state exactly what would replace the role of Ofcom in terms of how it has gone about its business in this instance – and, furthermore, whether he would endorse the conclusions of Digital Britain not least as regards its communications infrastructure aspects. In the service of joined-up thinking, he might well want to state whether extending Ofcom’s remit to cover the Post Office is also a part of Conservative policy.

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Written by Calvin

07/07/2009 at 1:29 pm

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