Having the knowledge doesn’t mean it’s the right knowledge

Yesterday I wrote about why the DCMS oversight committee is biased towards the South of England. This has a serious effect because it means the voices of Northern constituencies are not being heard. Every MP naturally comes with a certain bias that favours their own experience and their own constituency. This is why we need a balanced group overseeing the DCMS.

But the problems go considerably beyond this. Another huge problem is the background of the people doing the scrutinising. For many activities being reasonably well educated and having some nouse will stand you in good stead. But not so technology. Someone that doesn’t have a deep technical background and experience cannot think outside the box to assess the best way forward. The risk is they take a conservative (with a little c) approach; tend to listen to embedded players who lobby them and appear to be a safe pair of hands; can’t spot b******t when they see it; can’t suggest or imagine a different approach; don’t know if the suggested approach represents value for money or is possible to implement.

All parties advocate that the UK needs to be world leading in tech. So let’s look at the background of those overseeing this.

Julian Knight
DCMS Committee Chair
BA History
University of Hull (2.2)
Former journalist
local news, BBC, Independent on Sunday
Steve BrineBA History
Liverpool Hope
BBC journalist
Julie ElliottBA Government and Public Policy Newcastle PolytechnicGMB union
National Asthma Campaign
Rupa HuqBA Political and Social Sciences and Law
Newham College, Cambridge (2.1)
PhD in cultural studies with a thesis on youth culture
University of East London
Lecturer at Victoria University of Manchester and Kingston University
John NicholsonMA English Literature & Politics
Glasgow University
BBC, ITV, various newspapers
Giles WatlingNo university qualificationsActor
Kevin BrennanBA PP&E, Oxford
PGCE, University College of Wales
MA Education Management University of Glamorgan
Clive EffordNo university qualificationsTaxi driver
Local councillor
Damian GreenPP&E, OxfordJournalist
BBC, Channel 4, The Times
Consultant in Public Affairs
Simon JuppNo university qualificationCommercial radio presenter
Journalist BBC and ITV
Jane StevensonGuildhall School of Music
“post-graduate opera studies”
Classical singer

Of the 11 members of the DCMS committee not one has any qualifications, experience or background in technology. Five out of 11 (45%) have journalistic backgrounds and have worked for the BBC; 2 out of 11 (18%) have creative backgrounds (singer, actor); 3 have backgrounds that are not directly relevant (taxi driver, teacher, lecturer).

This demonstrates how out of the kilter the committee is – with a bias towards the ‘media’ and ‘culture’ sides of the portfolio with 63% of members coming from that side and none (0%) coming from the ‘digital’ side of the portfolio under which telecoms fits.

While intelligent lay people might very well be able to form an opinion on sports or culture, technology is very different. Without a strong technical background how can these members oversee 5G or broadband policy? They are currently seeking to review the impact of connected tech. My question is what qualifies them to be able to do this? What skills do they have to assess a sensible approach to this technology beyond the lay person or to sift through different opinions to decide which is the right approach for the UK?

None of these people would be sufficiently qualified to get a job in telecoms, IT, cybersecurity or any other technical industry – but they are qualified to oversee it apparently. This points to a big weakness in the UK’s approach to tech. There are too many former BBC employees to begin with. The UK needs and deserves a greater diversity of background and at least three members who have deep technical expertise.

And while we’re at it, you will note that only 27% of the committee is female.