I was once very taken with thinker and writer Andre Gorz.
His 1983 book, Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work, envisaged the ‘micro-electronic revolution’ heralding the end of work and the start of a better life for all. This life, based on the liberation from wage slavery and ‘true wealth’, would be supported by a universal basic income and provide time for more caring and fulfilling social relations. Nice non-work if you can get it.
Fast forward over three decades. Youthful utopianism vanished and the so-called fourth industrial revolution well and truly upon us, with the cloud, artificial intelligence, mobile phones, robotics and the Mechanical Turk transforming domestic and working lives.
Yet alongside that revolution run 40-70% cuts in local authority budgets, decimated services, 750,000 council jobs lost since 2010, a 22% drop in local government pay since 2010 and certainly no universal basic income.
In this time of austerity, how can emerging technologies be harnessed to transform local public services, liberating cash and local government workers from repetitive tasks, providing time and space to develop the people-focused services many of us crave? What would it take, who would pay and what does it all mean for trade unions and the way we organise?
According to the Local Government Association’s report, Transforming Public Services Using Technology and Digital Tools and Approaches, the fourth industrial revolution in councils is well underway, saving significant sums and improving access to services. Yet many of the 1.3 million council and school employees – 76% of them women – haven’t noticed. Neither have most service users or those denied services by austerity.
The potential for ICT to take over routine tasks and processes to free time and money in councils is indisputable and desirable. But to produce socially useful results, a new political consensus and vision is required. There must be belief in the importance of local government and local services, real powers to underpin them, adequate funding and re-investment of e-savings in jobs, decent pay and retraining and upskilling the workforce.
World Economic Forum research suggests more than one third of the skill sets of most occupations in 2020 will not be those considered crucial to today’s jobs. Currently, the per capita spend on training in councils is £182, 90% of which is spent on senior managers. Most employees have no chance at all of accessing serious ICT development.
As for trade unions, the path to paradise will require organisers to be trained in emerging technologies and combat moves to e-recruitment and the atomisation of jobs that will ensue. We will need ‘digital angels’ to surf the clouds, with ideas of their own about innovation and liberation. The paths to paradise need more than good intentions.
Heather Wakefield, national secretary - local government, polic and justice, Unison