Tom, Tories and Timing

Tom Steinberg’s blog splutters back to life after more than two years asleep, to confirm reports that he will be advising the Conservatives on IT policy. ‘I’ve been asked to advise the Tories on IT policy,’ he writes, ‘and I’ve accepted.’
He’s clearly sensitive to the issues this raises as regards his ‘day job’ as director of MySociety. He immediately jumps in to stress MySociety is ‘non-partisan’, and that he himself has no interest in party politics. That’s all fair enough. But it’s inevitably going to make life difficult, on numerous levels. Take for example this paragraph on’s ‘About’ page:

No, we are not party political, and this project is neither left nor right wing. It is about building useful digital tools for anyone who wants to use them. And unlike most think tanks that say they’re non-partisan, we really are – none of that ‘It’s not official, but everybody knows they’re really close to party X’ nonsense here.

Now of course, MySociety isn’t just Tom – but he’s its public face, and a very visible face at that. Can we really read that paragraph today, in the same way that we would have read it last week?
Let me be absolutely clear. I completely understand why Tom has accepted this offer. Direct access to (future?) Ministers at a policy development level is invaluable. You can, of course, get a lot done through the civil service; but a change of Prime Minister brings with it the kinds of opportunities you can’t ignore. And I have no doubt that Tom has accepted this role because he sees it as the best way to get Good Things done.
But – why now? The exact circumstances of the announcement, at the Conservative Party Conference, can only serve to offend current good contacts within Labour… putting Tom in an awkward position, for the next six months at least, and (conceivably, I suppose) beyond – for no obvious benefit. And despite his protestations of non-partisanship, it will inevitably be portrayed in party-political terms: a defection by a former Labour advisor, one of Gordon Brown’s Everyday Heroes turning his back, etc.
MySociety’s Francis Irving asked on Twitter, ‘how is steiny helping tories with bills any different from helping labour with petitions?’ My response is that we still have some notional separation between politics and government, and the petitions system was built for the civil service, for The Government Of The Day. I would have fully expected Tom and MySociety to engage with a new Conservative government, if and when. But I’d have expected him to wait until they had actually become the Government.
Tom is a good guy. A great guy, actually. I hope he knows what he’s doing. And I hope it pays off in the end. In the meantime, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

2 thoughts on “Tom, Tories and Timing”

  1. I think his instinct is right, and its probably the Tories that are making more than this than they need to.
    As @hubmum tweeted this morning. “Not entirely sure that I understand the @steiny fuss. Are we thinking the winner/loser at election will be decided on their IT policy? Hmmm”. I think I go along with that.
    I don’t always agree with Tom (in fact, not often) but I do respect his persistence at pushing an agenda of open democracy via the internet, and am glad that someone is taking him seriously.
    I think you’ve nailed it to, its too tempting to be offered an opportunity to effect change when its most likely to happen. Personally this doesn’t change my opinion of MySociety or Tom and those who think so are barking up the wrong tree so to speak. Tom isn’t a political animal, he’s a democracy animal.

  2. Knowing a lot of My Society people including key developers, I can tell you that Tom Steinberg is not exaggerating when he says he’ll be burnt at the stake if he tries to make the project political. Not a chance. Easier (in my view) to get cats to form marching bands.

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