If your train is late, you can complain on my website

I don't make any bones about admitting I'm not exactly Bill Gates when it comes to technology
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The Independent Culture
THE CHATTERING classes are often the only ones to get really worked up about open government. So the question marks over the Government's policy on freedom of information have not, predictably enough, displaced Posh and Becks from the tabloid front pages. But the possibility of really involving the public in its functioning is one of the great challenges facing a modernising government. That's why yesterday, when I launched my six-point campaign card for the London mayoralty, I devoted one of the bullet points to new technology.

Many politicians think that with a bit of hi-tech gloss they can get away with looking like modernisers. I don't make any bones about admitting that I'm not exactly Bill Gates. But I'm not Fred Flintstone, either - I've got a mobile phone and a pager, mainly out of necessity. My Internet skills are basic, to say the least. Regardless of whether we know how to build a nuclear bomb or design a car, we all have to grapple with the great issues that are facing modern society, and the same goes for the technologies of the 21st century.

By the start of the next millennium, London will have a new form of strategic government. Unlike existing democratic institutions, the Greater London Authority will be able to embrace new technology from the start, rather than slowly or painfully adapting. Because of that fact, the new mayor will be well placed to work with Tony Blair to test out how we can simultaneously raise the levels of skills and access to information technology, and incorporate its demands into our economic thinking.

London will be able to take a lead by establishing its own governmental website - www.london mayor.com. By saying this now, rather than next May or July, we can encourage a huge debate from now until the election about what the Greater London Authority's site should look like, how we ensure maximum use of it, and how it can be used to enhance democracy in the capital. In so doing, London Labour will be in the vanguard of delivering Tony Blair's summer pledge that by 2008 anyone wishing to conduct communication with the Government can to do so via the Internet.

Every Londoner will know the address of the mayor's site, which will appear on all GLA-related publications. From here, they will know that they can find out anything they need to know about London, with access to mojor agencies such as the Metropolitan Police and Transport for London. Every planning issue being dealt with by the GLA can be easily found by simply clicking on your borough on a map of London to find all the planning applications in that area. The principle of freedom of information will be extended via the mayor's website to live broadcasts of the mayor's question time.

Modern, open democracy should not be afraid of people power. If disgruntled Londoners standing on a Tube platform knew that once they finally made it into work they could go straight to the mayor via his website to complain about delays, then the mayor would have a major resource of direct information from Tube users. We all see the official Underground statistics ("the Northern Line was operating at 125 per cent efficiency last month"), but a more direct system of expressing public opinion would be a powerful tool in shaping the public transport agenda. We should know what the commuters - as opposed to Transport for London managers - feel is right and wrong with the system.

Every document being considered by the GLA, published by it or commissioned by it, would be immediately available to Londoners. To run this kind of site the GLA would need a dedicated unit. The GLA should provide a certain amount of free space every year to tenants' associations and other community organisations. Combined with a "roving" section of the mayor's Internet Unit, the authority would be able to advise the public on setting up and maintaining simple websites and e-mail communications in their communities. Tourists all over the world will know that they can find the site easily and find links to organisations such as the London Tourist Board, with information about how to enjoy a visit to London.

A huge, sprawling metropolis such as London has historically declined as a centre of manufacturing for decades. Now, the problem the metropolitan centres face is that new technologies do not automatically favour them. For example, why set up an Internet service provider's headquarters in Oxford Circus, when you could do it at substantially reduced capital costs (including land and labour) in Aberdeen? With the Internet you don't need to be anywhere near your customer.

London's problems are compounded by the preponderance of old buildings, built many years before such new-fangled concepts as underfloor cabling were demanded by modern business. Although the capital has one of the best-educated workforces in the country, its population is in fact less schooled in the use of new technology than that of Manchester or Glasgow. And like much of Britain, our education system lags behind other countries in the training of IT skills.

One of the advantages of the Government's devolution programme is that these issues will become electoral battlegrounds in which the parties have to face up to the lack of investment and education in new technology. A mayor who does not ensure free Internet access for every Londoner in every school, library, town hall, job centre and college is likely to be swept aside by the pressures of the debate.

And the persuading role that is so integral to a directly elected executive mayor means that the GLA can work with the Local Education Authorities and the Government to promote a massive development of Internet training in schools and colleges. Learning the lesson of the GLC, all GLA employees should receive day release to improve IT skills, a policy that must also apply to the fire service, Transport for London and the police. The mayor should use the planning powers of the Greater London Authority to insist that new buildings are designed to meet IT and e-commerce requirements, such as space for underfloor cabling.

Great cities stay great if they can stay at the cutting edge of culture or economic innovation. Many of the greatest cities are those which have both a strong cultural and artistic base as well as economic dynamism. With its mayor and assembly working with a Labour government, London is well placed for a renaissance - and we could bury the cliche of the Net nerd, while we're at it.

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