Ten years of Policy Exchange

Free Schools, elected police chiefs, welfare reform - this is the legacy of my think tank.

Policy Exchange was founded ten years ago. We believed - and still do - that there is a role for the State, albeit a much smaller and more efficient one, to help improve peoples' lives. We also felt that people should have more of a direct say on the decisions that affect themselves and their families.

Decentralisation was one of our key themes and some of our better known policy recommendations such as directly elected police commissioners and Free Schools stem from this initial premise. The first elections for police and crime commissioners will take place this November. We believe that a police chief who is directly accountable to the people he or she serves will improve not only the standard of policing at a local level but also re-establish trust in the police, something that has diminished recently with the recent phone hacking scandal.

We first put forward policy recommendations for the setting up of Free Schools because we believe that every parent should have access to a good, local school which offers their child the best possible education. Teaching is one of the most important jobs in the country. We want schools, especially in the most deprived areas of the UK, to have the means to attract the best possible teachers. That means challenging dated concepts such as national pay bargaining, which defines how much a teacher should earn based on time spent in the job, rather than ability. Head teachers know how good a teacher is and should be allowed to pay that person accordingly. Likewise if someone is not cut out to be a teacher, then he or she should not simply be moved from one school to the next as is currently the case. We need to reform the education system to attract the brightest and the best to help our children achieve their potential.

The pupil premium - an additional cash payment for the most disadvantaged children - is one idea that some people forget was first floated by Policy Exchange. The Liberal Democrats took the idea forward in their 2010 election manifesto and the policy came into being this year.

Our work on re-establishing the contributory principle in the welfare system has been taken forward by both Labour and Conservative politicians. The universal credit, set to be introduced in 2014, is a stepping stone to making it more worthwhile to work rather than remain on benefits. However, there is a huge amount more to be done to create a fairer welfare system. Recently we have proposed tougher sanctions and conditions on jobseekers who are not doing all they can to find work. At the same time, the government has a responsibility to help jobcentre advisers identify those people who are the least likely to be able to hold down a job due to alcohol or drug problems or a history of mental health problems. These people need the most help and we need to create a system where on day one of someone signing on, a Jobcentre adviser has the information to tailor specific help towards people with particular needs.

While a number of our policy recommendations have found their way into Coalition thinking we are not resting on our laurels. There is a huge challenge facing all political parties - how do you improve public services with no money. We will be publishing a number of reports over the coming months which specifically look to provide answers to this question.

How can you improve the effectiveness of the police when they are faced with 20 per cent budget cuts over the next three years? We think the police could deploy existing, fully trained officers more effectively rather than simply hire more staff - deployment is more important than employment. Private companies and civilian staff can play a role in delivering back office functions, such as manning call centres, freeing up time for officers to carry out more visible policing roles which is what the public is crying out for.

Energy bills are the biggest concern to most people around the country if you look at any of the opinion polls. We think the government could help energy companies reduce electricity bills by revising current climate change policy. We believe that global warming is happening and we believe that the UK has a responsibility to reduce its carbon emissions. But, current energy policy throws billions of pounds of taxpayer's money on the deployment of specific, expensive technologies such as offshore wind. Government should spend more of its budget on financing innovation directly, rather than subsidising the mass roll out of expensive technologies.

Opening up public data is something that this government is committed to doing and we fully support this aim. Only this week we published a report calling on a right to open data. All non personal information held by government departments (maps and postcodes for example) should be made available for free. We think that entrepreneurs and civic activists could use this information to create new "Apple-like" services and products. Free, open data could create billions for the economy.

As you can probably tell, there is plenty of work to do. We need to make sure that the modern day Policy Exchange rises to the challenge.

Neil O'Brien is the Director of Policy Exchange

Neil O'Brien is the director of Policy Exchange.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.