For months it was expected that the 2015 general election would be followed by days or even weeks of political uncertainty as parties vied to form a new coalition. Instead – and to the surprise of almost everyone – the outcome was clear. What might be the implications for tech policy?
First, the MPs. The election was memorable for some of the big names that lost their seats. From a technology perspective, the most notable goodbye was to Cambridge’s Julian Huppert – a science PhD and one of the House’s most vocal technology advocates. The main impact of his departure is likely to felt in debate on strengthening the government’s online surveillance powers, previously blocked by the Lib Dems, but expected to be revisited shortly. Such measures look more likely to pass in his absence.
As well as goodbyes, the Commons welcomes a dozen new faces with an interest or background in technology. These include Matt Warman, former head of technology at the Daily Telegraph; Rishi Sunak (formerly of PX) co-founder of an investment firm that worked with Silicon Valley companies; and Wes Streeting, who was part of the Digital Skills Taskforce report for the Labour party. In total there appear to be just over 60 MPs with a tech interest – Policy Exchange has crowdsourced a list of them. Given that there is almost no policy area that does not stand to be affected by technology over the next five years, they need to be supported and aided at every opportunity to ensure their voice is heard.
With Conservatives remaining in government, it looks all but certain that the Government Digital Service will continue. The start of the new parliament will be an important opportunity to reflect on what has worked well, what hasn’t, and – most importantly – what should come next. Four questions need to be addressed soon:
1) Moving beyond the front face: How can the government digital agenda move beyond GOV.UK and the exemplar transactions to deliver substantial transformation behind the scenes? This debate was started at the end of the last parliament with rising discussion on the nature of Government as a Platform (GaaP). Serious discussion now needs to take place on what exactly that should look like, what its component parts should be, and who should define and create them. One thing seems clear: if serious money is to be saved, GaaP cannot just be an additional layer – it must enable substantial parts of the government’s labyrinthine legacy architecture to be switched off.
2) Role for the private sector: The last government made a clear statement that the ‘era of big IT is dead’, with tech companies and large systems integrators blamed for some of the worst public sector IT failures. The past five years may well have been a necessary step to reset relations with industry. Yet it will be counter productive for government to insulate itself from the best technical innovation of the private sector in future. A key question that needs to be resolved is how GDS and government CTOs can work together with industry in a way that positively builds upon what they have done to date, and accelerates the pace of digital reform. This may best be achieved by GDS becoming custodian of the rules: setting the framework for how GaaP will work, but enabling anyone, whether public sector, private sector or open source developers, to provide it.
3) Expanding beyond central government: In the final budget of the last parliament, it was announced that ‘the Government Digital Service will collaborate with partners in local government’. Given that local authorities have faced – and continue to face – significant budgetary pressures, it is right that central government provides constructive support to help councils deliver more with less. Yet they must be careful to provide what is actually needed. Over the past five years, there has been considerable debate on how local authorities should use tech to reform themselves (Policy Exchange made its own contribution with eight ideas in Small Pieces Loosely Joined). The government should set a deadline for local authorities to come up with a model for what they want, and then work quickly to provide it.
4) Organisational reform: During the election campaign there was an almost total absence of debate on how to reform the public sector. The left proposed spending more money; the right proposed cuts but without providing ideas on how services could be adapted to cope. All politicians need to step beyond that binary debate and focus their energy on finding new and innovative ways to deliver more – and better – with less. For that to happen, it cannot just be CIOs and CTOs driving the reform agenda – CEOs must lead. Mark Thompson has recently highlighted case studies from Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations, including Buurtzorg – a group of 8,000 home care nurses who are supported by just 50 back office staff. Such examples demonstrate that dramatic cost reductions can be achieved while improving services and boosting public sector staff morale at the same time.
During a speech to mark the launch of London’s Google Campus in March 2012, George Osborne stated that ‘We want nothing less than to make the UK the technology centre of Europe.’ The tech community appreciated this vocal support from the top of the last government and largely praised its policy initiatives for tech businesses. That favourable environment can be expected to continue, with further innovation being encouraged in areas such as the sharing economy, fintech, drones and driverless cars. Work to support the development of tech clusters around the UK looks set to continue – better transport connections between northern cities should be a priority. The government may also wish to consider whether in a data-driven economy, companies that declare data residency in the UK should be given tax breaks to keep them here.
Yet during this parliament, one topic will dominate for the tech sector: Europe.
British tech businesses (indeed, all businesses) will be impacted by developments with the Digital Single Market and the expected European General Regulation on Data Protection. With one million technology jobs needing to be filled by 2020, tech businesses – especially in London – have made significant use of hiring talented individuals from other countries. Clearly, the question of the UK’s future in Europe is a much bigger one than just the tech sector alone. Yet if the government wishes to maintain Britain’s position as the most digital nation in Europe, it must ensure it carefully listens to – and considers the impact on – the tech sector of either referendum outcome.
As Policy Exchange outlined in its Tech Manifesto, from education to healthcare and from energy to transport, no policy area is immune from technology’s influence. It is the foundation stone on which Britain’s economic future will depend. Let this then be the parliament in which technology achieves the recognition it deserves.
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